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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Baltimore begins massive and dangerous cleanup after bridge collapse

By Justin Jouvenal,Jacob Bogage and Erin Cox Washington Post

Huge crane ships, thousands of relief workers and millions of dollars headed toward Baltimore on Thursday, as efforts turned from recovery after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge to a massive cleanup that some experts described as unprecedented and highly dangerous.

The U.S. Navy deployed several floating cranes, including one that could lift 1,000 tons, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would send more than 1,100 engineering specialists and other experts to begin removing the hulking debris that has crippled the Port of Baltimore.

Federal officials also announced the first relief funds - $60 million sought by Maryland officials - would flow toward disaster recovery just hours after the request was submitted.

Top officials with the Corps, which is leading the effort to clear the Patapsco River, described a three step effort to get one of the nation’s largest shipping hubs back online. They are racing to stem the rippling economic fallout from a cargo ship striking the bridge on Tuesday.

Teams would first try to clear the shipping channel of the massive steel trusses that block it to allow one-way traffic to begin flowing again into and out of the port. Second, they would lift pieces of the bridge draped across the 985-foot Dali and move it. Finally, they would dredge up concrete and steel that have settled on the river bed.

Officials have yet to offer a timeline for how long that process will take, but infrastructure and salvage experts said the cleanup would pose a monumental challenge that includes frigid waters for divers having to cut steal beams and the 764 tons of hazardous materials that remain onboard the Dali.

Peter Ford, founder of SkyRock Advisors which provides consulting on infrastructure projects and is a former Merchant Marine, compared the operation to freeing a container ship that became stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, but perhaps more complex.

“This will be highly technical, very difficult and frankly dangerous,” Ford said. “This size of vessel. This size of bridge. All of the span coming down entirely and some of it still on top of a vessel is a situation that I have never read about in my career.”

Federal officials have not described in detail how they plan to carry out the clean up mission, but Ford said he thought they would begin by using sonar and other tools to map out where debris lies on the floor of the Patapsco River, which is about 50 feet deep.

He said they would hack the debris above and below the surface into pieces, which would in some instances require divers. The barge- or boat-based cranes would then lift the pieces onto barges floating nearby. He said cutting the steel could be particularly dangerous because beams might shift or fall. In some instances, he said workers might be forced to build platforms to support the beams as they are cut.

He said teams would probably have to go below deck on the Dali to ensure it is seaworthy, before attempting to tow it to port. Finally, he said they would probably use scoops to dredge up materials from the riverbed.

James Bell, president of ADCO Environmental Services - a Chicago-based company that does hazardous material cleanups - said one of the complicating factors of the cleanup are 56 shipping containers that contain hazardous materials, some of which have broken open. The hazardous materials include corrosive and flammable liquids, as well as lithium-ion batteries.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said Wednesday they noticed a sheen on the surface of the Patapsco and teams deployed floating booms to corral any leaks.

“The hazmat crew always goes in after the emergency responders,” Bell said. “You have to remove the hazards, so that when you bring your new workers in to start removing the bridge, they’re not in harm’s way.”

Bell said the flammable and corrosive liquids are unlikely to leak, since they’re packaged inside steel drums or industrial “totes” designed to safely transport chemicals.

“While the [shipping] containers may be damaged from the bridge falling on them, those [drums and totes] are extremely strong and they can hold up very well,” Bell said. “Those lithium-ion batteries probably present the biggest danger of all, because once they ignite they are not easily extinguished.”

Some experts said as herculean as the cleanup sounds, it might have been even harder. Stephen Frailey, a partner at the Pacific Maritime Group that performs salvage operations, said Baltimore dodged a worst-case scenario.

“We are lucky in that the hull seems to be intact. It doesn’t seem to be leaking water. It doesn’t seem to be leaking fuel,” Frailey said. “It also seems to be stable so it’s not going to capsize.”

Both Ford and Frailey predicted it would take months to fully clear the debris in the river.

Maryland transportation officials had asked for $60 million in federal emergency relief funds on Thursday morning and Gov. Wes Moore (D) had earlier declared a state of emergency, making Maryland eligible for quick access to hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Within hours federal officials approved the aid from U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency relief fund.

Federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, will assume the full cost of clearing shipping lanes in the Patapsco River, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Money from the emergency relief fund will cover Maryland’s costs to divert traffic away from the collapsed portion of I-695, the major thruway that used the Key Bridge, and for the design and rebuild of a new structure, Van Hollen said.

Policymakers have already begun discussing raising the height of a new bridge, he said, and incorporating new technology to make the next structure safer.

Emergency relief funds will cover the vast majority of a rebuilding project, Van Hollen said, but not the total amount. He and other members of the Maryland congressional delegation are planning to introduce legislation for more federal dollars to cover that shortfall.

President Biden said earlier in the week that federal government should pay for the full amount to restore the waterway and erect a new bridge.

“When it comes to using those funds for the design and ultimately the construction of new bridge, there’s a cost share where the federal government picks up the lion’s share of the costs, but not all of it,” Van Hollen said. “And that’s where Senator [Ben] Cardin and I plan to introduce legislation to ensure that the federal government is able to pick up the full costs going forward.”

Congressional spending for Maryland, though, could take months to pass, even if things flow smoothly on Capitol Hill.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg convened a meeting of port, labor and industry officials Thursday to discuss how to mitigate supply chain disruptions stemming from the partial shutdown of the Port of Baltimore.

A solemn moment of remembrance occurred Thursday for the six construction workers who were killed in the bridge collapse. At Opening Day for the Baltimore Orioles, fans were asked to stand at Camden Yards shortly before 3 p.m., after all the players had been introduced and both teams stood on the baselines.

A replica Fort McHenry flag was unfurled in center field to a lengthy roar. Orioles broadcaster Kevin Brown then asked fans to remove their hats and observe a moment of silence for the victims of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse.

Maryland Transportation Authority Officers who helped stop traffic on the bridge before the collapse were also honored.