A review showed things kept underneath some bridges could catch fire.

The collapse of a major interstate overpass in Atlanta has prompted DelDOT to undertake a new round of inspections Delaware’s bridges.

The review, completed in early April, showed areas underneath some bridges are used to store materials that could easily catch fire.

“We have revisited those bridges on April 3 with a focus on potential for fire and we are developing a plan to remove materials with high fire potential,” said Barry Benton, DelDOT’s assistant director of bridge design.

Flammable material

Reports after the March 31 collapse in Atlanta showed flammable materials were stored under the bridge. The fire, apparently started by three homeless men, developed into a conflagration that caused structural failure. The bridge carries I-85 over the northeast part of the city. Repairs will take several months.

The men later were arrested and charged.

Benton said the Atlanta catastrophe prompted his office to put together a plan to inspect bridges here with sufficient space underneath for storage. As inspectors in Atlanta went over the collapsed bridge section, they learned the area below warehoused large amounts of PVC pipe. Some objects made of polyvinyl chloride tend to catch fire easily and melt at a relatively low 160 degrees, more than 50 degrees below the boiling point of water.

There are more than 1,600 bridges in the First State, although the area beneath most is too small or is not configured to allow storage there.

To conduct the April inspection, DelDOT started with a 2014 report that examined all state bridges, written after the shutdown of a portion of the I-495 Christina River bridge.  Property next to it was used to store 55,000 tons of dirt. Its weight compacted the ground, caused the bridge supports to shift, and threw the structure out of alignment. DelDOT shut down the highway for several months for repairs.

The final cost was $44.6 million, and DelDOT announced April 13 it filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against Alma Properties LLC, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Keogh Contracting Company and Port Contractors Inc.

The 2104 report identified bridges with enough open space beneath to be used for storage.

No written policy

DelDOT spokesman Greg Layton said although the most recent inspection showed there were areas underneath Delaware bridges used for storage, there were no significant quantities of materials similar to that found in Atlanta being stored there.

He did not name bridges identified in the inspection nor exactly what materials were stored under them.

The agency does not have a written policy on what can be kept underneath bridges and there are no regulations to provide guidance. DelDOT is working on a plan that will eliminate highly flammable material storage under its bridges, Layton said. He did not say when that will be completed.

Right of way agreements, some negotiated decades ago, allow customers to use these areas for various purposes. Layton acknowledged space has been used improperly or without permission.

“In other cases, people have encroached on the right of way,” Layton said. “We have a skate park, basketball court and parking lots under several of our bridges. In other locations we struggle with accumulation of debris from illegal dumping and homeless encampments.”

In May 2016, a group of homeless people were evicted from a camp underneath the Douglas L. Harris Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 13 over the St. Jones in Dover.