Murky Waters

Will the 35W bridge collapse have serious environmental ramifications? With bodies presumably still in the water, it may seem a rather churlish question to pose. But the massive heap of concrete, steel, vehicles, and lord knows what else would seem to be a poor development for the well-being of the Mississippi River.

Environmental concerns initially focused on three railroad cars that were crushed by the collapsed bridge. There could have been serious ecological harm if those cars had been carrying a highly toxic substance, such as benzine. But as it turned out one of the cars contained plastic pellets, while another held plastic powder. The third was empty. "There was a little bit of spillage," says Sam Brungardt, public information officer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "Nothing that would pose an environmental or a health threat."

Another possible environmental issue stems from gasoline seeping into the water from impacted vehicles. But oil dispensation appears to have been surprisingly limited. "There was a little bit of oil but that dissipated very rapidly," says Brungardt. "We never really found pockets of oil."

A concern going forward will be air quality. As workers untangle and remove the debris, the MPCA is worried about what types of particulate matter will begin circulating in the air. The agency has done preliminary testing near the site of the bridge collapse to establish baseline levels of lead, asbestos, silicates, and other potentially dangerous materials. "Those are all things that are known to affect health if they are breathed in," Brungardt says.

But overall it doesn't appear that the bridge collapse will have any serious, long-term impact on the health of the Mississippi River. "One could imagine scenarios where much worse cargo could have been on that bridge," says Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. "That does not appear to have happened."

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