Contamination major obstacle in I-10 bridge replacement

Published: Jun. 30, 2011 at 4:37 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 1, 2011 at 9:57 AM CDT
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It's a question that anybody who drives over the I-10 bridge regularly asks...when are they going to replace this bridge? It's now nearly sixty years old. Trouble is, the aftermath of an old chemical spill could prevent a replacement being built for many years. A $5.7 million  rehab project aims to keep the bridge safe in the interim:

For years there's been discussion of the need for a new, safer I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge-- yet over the last several years it's become increasingly clear underground contamination from an ethylene dichloride spill in 1994 is an obstacle. Spokesman for the state highway department Jodi Conachen admits the contamination pretty much halted progress on a new bridge. "Our hope and our purpose has always been to build a new structure in Lake Charles. Obviously, that was derailed significantly by finding contamination there right beneath the structure and especially the Sampson Street situation right there. It definitely pulled a project that was progressing to a pretty complete stop as we look at the issues."

The state has sued those responsible for the chemical spill and the lawsuit is still pending. She says the $5.7 million dollar rehab project just started is a good investment given how long it may take for contamination issues to be resolved. "We're working with DEQ to outline kind of the parameters of where that plume is. Once we can document that then we can better assess, okay, how do we go over it, around it, through it depending on how it's moving."

Meanwhile, concerned citizen Michael Tritico has been researching public records related to the spill and trying to get inspection reports on the bridge. "I've been stone walled."

Conachen says because of homeland security since 9/11 inspection reports of so-called critical structures are not public record. "Because it has very specific information about the structure of the bridge and bridge vulnerabilities, that we're not able to release that inspection report. What we do provide is any kind of summary information if citizens are interested in that."

As well, thousands of pages of records related to the spill that Tritico tried to get from the Federal Highway Administration have been withheld or blacked out--the official reason for withholding many of the records is what they call deliberative process privilege. "3600 pages of inter agency deliberative process privilege? I'm not sure what they mean except they don't want us to know what they're thinking," says Tritico.

Still, even though many state and federal records are not open to public inspection, Conachen emphasizes the bridge is safe. "DOTD would not hesitate to close the bridge if we thought for a minute it would be unsafe to the public," said Conachen.

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