By Thomas Kurtz, Steilacom
Why is the bridge to Saltar’s Point Beach and park still closed? It has been over a year since it was damaged and yet nothing has happened to it. It needs to be asked: Is the bridge actually in danger of falling down or is it not? If it isn’t an imminent threat to collapse then the gate should be opened and the many people who miss the park can once again enjoy it.
If, in fact, the bridge is in danger of collapse, it is a huge safety risk. Dozens of trains pass under that bridge daily, including coal and oil trains. The media reports that the potential for even more oil trains is great. Those trains cause a tremendous amount of vibration which easily could be the straw bringing the bridge down. Should the bridge collapse and cause the derailment of one of those oil trains it could be a catastrophe. Are the odds of such an event low? Probably, but what are the odds of an unmanned train breaking loose and derailing in a small Quebec, Canada town? Ask the 47 incinerated residents what they think the odds are. With the oil not only leaking and burning at the derail sight but also spreading on the water of the Sound, the affected area could be much, much larger. If the derailment was “only” of a coal train the environmental damage to the Sound would be considerable. If the derailment was of a mixed revenue train there are other huge dangers. One such train of November 5, 2013 was observed, by noting the hazardous material placards on tank cars, to have ethanol (#1987), chlorine (#1017), glyoxylic acid (#1993), and propane (#1075), amongst other toxic and hazardous materials. There have been two derailments less than a mile from Saltar’s Point in the last few years already. A collapsing bridge makes the chances for a third even greater.
Is the bridge closed to keep the weight of people crossing the bridge from collapsing it? What about the potential weight of snow? The bridge is about 50 feet long by 5 feet wide. That is 250 square feet of surface. With even a 6 inch snowfall that is 125 cubic feet of snow. Average snow weighs 14 pounds per cubic foot. That’s 1750 pounds, certainly more than the weight of several people. If the snow turns to rain after 6 inches it goes up to 20 pounds/ cubic foot and 2500 pounds.
What about the potential for an earthquake? According to scientists it is when, not if. A tremor like the last Nisqually quake might not damage tracks which are routinely inspected and maintained but could do enough further damage to the bridge that the next passing train could bring it down.
If the city officials are worried about injury to one or two people by crossing the bridge, why are they not worried about the many that would be at risk by the collapse of the bridge for other reasons? The city routinely defers responsibility to the railway, reporting BNSF is working on a replacement plan but they aren’t told anything else and there is never anything new. BNSF is revenue driven. Anything causing disruption of traffic, especially on a main line, has serious financial implications. If a derailment occurs and damages equipment and track with environmental impacts that threaten the public safety there are also huge public relations as well as financial problems. A railroad is proactive in safety and prevention so it is assumed they would have taken immediate action if the Saltar’s Point bridge were a threat. Yet they haven’t. In the Tacoma News Tribune of October 28, 2013 it was reported in an article on oil trains that the Sierra Club feels “It’s very dangerous to move this stuff by rail”. BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler says that the railway is committed to safety and preventing accidents. The question then is the railway ignoring a high risk threat, or isn’t it as bad as we are led to believe by the Steilacoom government?
The bottom line: Is the bridge in imminent danger of collapsing or not? If not, the city should unlock the gate, start maintaining the park and let residents once again enjoy the natural beauty they deserve. If it is a safety threat, the public officials and city staff is obligated to immediately take steps to remove it, including litigation against BNSF, if necessary. A goal of replacing the bridge seems logical but the first step and more immediate and urgent issue is removing the bridge for the safety of the town and its citizens, or reopening it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mayor Ron Lucas told The Suburban Times that a structural engineering report declared the overpass a hazard. As a result, he closed the bridge. Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF) initial reaction to the engineering report was akin to, we don’t do pedestrian overpasses, according to Mayor Lucas. Since, Public Works Director Mark Burlingame is working with his counterpart at BNSF to move forward. Lucas noted that BNSF has invested time and money in the project and he feels the bridge will “most likely be replaced.” The Mayor didn’t offer a timeline.