The heavily travelled federal highway will be closed all summer after an engineer noticed that the bridge’s support piers were damaged. The emergency repairs are expected to cost $20 million.
An investigation found that someone dumped 55 thousand tons of dirt under the bridge causing the piers to shift and crack. Keogh Contracting owns the dirt and is helping to haul it away, but that much dirt doesn’t just appear overnight. It has to be approved with government permits, especially since much of the dirt was piled high on state owned land.
Charles Copeland, a former state legislator and chair of the state Republican party, isn’t ready to put all the blame on the contractor. “He didn’t just wake up one day and say ‘I’m just going to start dumping dirt under 495,'” Copeland told me during a television interview. “He did that under contracts, he did that under authorities.”
So who approved the dirt that broke the bridge?
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control [DENREC] requires a sediment and storm water management plan before any land-disturbing activity, like excavating or dumping. But the state agency says it enforces the policy through local governments.
Alexandra Coppage, a spokesperson for Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams, told Delaware Online that they have no evidence that a plan was submitted. But apparently, that is where the investigation is going to end for the time being. Coppage told Delaware Online, “the primary focus is the emergency situation, and once that’s rectified, we can assess who the responsible party is.”
Rectifying the emergency situation, which is fixing the bridge so that traffic can flow again, is not expected to happen until Labor Day. Does an investigation really have to be delayed until then? And since there is a possibility that those investigating what happened may be the same state and city agencies ultimately responsible, shouldn’t there be a federal investigation? After all, I-495 is a federal interstate.
“I’m not sure who is going to investigate it first, whether it will be a federal or state investigation,” is Delaware Senator Chris Coons’s answer, “but there clearly is the possibility here of criminal wrongdoing, certainly of a lawsuit for recovery of damages. This contractor will certainly face some challenges.”
Charles Copeland believes that officials in the government knew about the dirt dumping and either approved the actions of the contractor or looked the other way. “They had to," he says. "I mean 55,000 tons doesn’t just pile up overnight, that happened over several years and no one noticed?”
Copeland is calling for a federal investigation. “DENREC is pointing at DELDOT, DELDOT is pointing at The City of Wilmington, the City of Wilmington is pointing at who knows what," he says. "And at the end of the day there are so many hands there and there is no accountability. The state of Delaware has no vested interest in finding that they were at fault.”
You can watch Larry Mendte's interviews with Senator Coons and Charles Copeland Saturday night, June 28th at 7 p.m. on MeTV channel 2. The show is called “The Delaware Way” and it will re-air Sunday morning at 9 a.m. Follow @LarryMendte on Twitter.