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After Atlanta fire and highway collapse, VDOT looks under state bridges

Travis Fain

In the five weeks since a massive fire collapsed a key section of interstate in Atlanta, Virginia inspectors have found bales of hay, lumber, parked vehicles and a random assortment of other materials beneath state highways.

Someone left a house trailer under a bridge in Washington County. It's not uncommon to see tractor trailers and construction equipment beneath interstate overpasses, particularly in commercial areas.

There was a boat on a trailer parked under one flyover in Newport News on Friday.

Virginia Department of Transportation inspectors have been on the lookout for under-bridge stockpiles since long-forgotten construction equipment caught fire and destroyed a section Interstate 85 in downtown Atlanta. So far they have found materials needing removal at 27 sites, including under and around Interstate 664 in Newport News, where it curves toward the Monitor Merrimack Bridge Tunnel.

A department spokeswoman said nothing was found anywhere in the state that was categorized as dangerous.

"We want to assure the public that as a result of this review, no materials similar to those under the Atlanta bridge were found," spokeswoman Anissa Rafeh said in an email. "The materials we did find are not considered high risk."

Inspection pictures provided to the Daily Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show stacks of wood and other potentially flammable substances under highways in a number of locations, but nothing on the scale of the tons of coiled plastic conduit that were stacked beneath the interstate in Atlanta.

That conduit was set ablaze by a homeless man, authorities there say, burned for hours and reached the high heat necessary to collapse the roadway. The material apparently had been stored in the area for as long as 11 years, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Virginia Department of Transportation does not store anything beneath bridges "as a practice," Rafeh said. It was unclear from Daily Press visits to a handful of locations around the state who owned the equipment and materials found under bridges, though in several cases nearby businesses seemed to be using the space.

The department doesn't have a database of its own construction materials storage locations, Rafeh said.

After the fire in Atlanta, the VDOT dispatched inspectors to locations the Structure and Bridge Division felt needed investigation, based on the past experience of its inspectors, Rafeh said. The department also added an item to its routine bridge and tunnel inspections checklist going forward, telling inspectors to report any stored materials.

It takes about two years to inspect every bridge and tunnel in the state, Rafeh said.

The list of materials inspectors have found so far is a varied one. The house trailer in Washington County has been removed, Rafeh said. Inspectors also found car parts, farm equipment, shipping containers, multiple boats, concrete form materials, sound insulation, a dump truck and a police van.

Experts in structural engineering have said fires on highways and bridges rarely burn long enough or hot enough to cause collapse, according to the Associated Press.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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