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Federal investigation now includes Boeing's North Charleston Dreamliner plant

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Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston is now part of an investigation by the Department of Justice into allegations that the company's culture values speed of production over safety. Provided/Boeing

Federal investigators have expanded their probe into safety problems at Boeing Co. to include the aerospace giant's 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston, according to news reports.

The Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to several people at the plant as investigators are looking into reports by The Post and Courier and other media of shoddy production and quality control problems at the North Charleston site, according to a story in The Seattle Times.

The DOJ previously opened a criminal investigation into a pair of deadly crashes of Boeing's 737 Max plane, which is built in Renton, Wash. That plane has been grounded worldwide since March.

Investigators apparently are looking into whether company-wide cultural issues exist within Boeing that have led to safety lapses on the production floors at multiple sites, The Seattle Times reported.

Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Libba Holland said the company does not comment on legal matters. The company has not been charged with any crime related to the 737 Max crashes or Dreamliner production.

Dennis Muilenburg, the company's president and CEO, has said Boeing will cooperate with all government inquiries.

Kevin McAllister, CEO of Boeing's commercial airplanes, has denied there are production problems in North Charleston.

"Boeing South Carolina teammates are producing the highest levels of quality in our history," he said in April.

But several workers have told The Post and Courier that the plant's production line is riddled with mistakes, such as: parts and debris left on planes; poorly installed equipment; and planes being rolled out of the assembly building to meet scheduling deadlines even though they still need work.

Those workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Boeing is putting profit and production ahead of safety. They point to a program that allows mechanics to approve much of their own work without a second quality inspection for many of the problems.

"I'm always finding cases where jobs are signed off and the parts aren't installed," one of the workers told The Post and Courier. "It happens a lot."

They said those problems multiplied when Boeing increased production of its Dreamliners to 14 a month — up from 12 — split between the South Carolina factory and a second plant in Everett, Wash. 

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The FAA stepped up inspections at the North Charleston site following the news reports, according to an agency memo, which also confirmed three safety complaints made by workers at the site, including a string of lights left in the tail section of a plane. The document also said there are several open compliance and enforcement cases at the plant.

David Carbon, the Boeing vice president in charge of the South Carolina plant, left the aerospace firm in May. Workers told The Post and Courier that Carbon had created a culture that valued speed over safety. Boeing said Carbon left to return to his native Australia to care for his family.

The FAA told Boeing this month that it is investigating whether management in North Charleston interfered with safety inspections. 

Allegations of production shortcuts aren't necessarily new for Boeing and they aren't confined to the North Charleston site. A letter from the agency to Boeing said mandatory safeguards "are not being followed or are being subverted" by corporate managers, according a report by The Wall Street Journal.

In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration levied a $12 million fine against Boeing as part of a settlement agreement calling for increased oversight of the company's production and safety practices.

That agreement was reached after the FAA found that a mechanic and inspector at the Everett Dreamliner plant signed documents claiming a fuel leak on an Air Canada jet had been fixed even though repairs were never made.

The FAA at that time also found nuts were being installed incorrectly — some backward — and without a locking safety wire. That led to fuel leaks on a handful of other Dreamliners that were in service with airlines.

Boeing says those problems have been addressed.

The 737 Max accidents in October and March killed 346 people and have raised questions about Boeing’s coziness with the FAA, which has turned over many of its airplane certification duties to the aerospace firm as it ramps up production to keep pace with rival Airbus in the world market.

Boeing’s single-aisle 737 Max planes were grounded worldwide in March. While investigations are under way, most reports point to flaws in the design of an automated anti-stall system that takes over a plane’s horizontal stabilizer. The planes are expected to stay grounded until late this year as Boeing works to find a solution to the problem.

Boeing opened its North Charleston campus a decade ago and is one of the Charleston region's largest private employers, with about 7,300 employees and contractors at the Dreamliner campus and other sites.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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