By Lisa Yates
The Times of Southwest Louisiana
Everyone waiting to see construction start on a new I-10 Calcasieu River bridge will have to wait longer – a lot longer – to see a new bridge become a reality.
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials said the bridge is on hold for now, citing both environmental issues and a lack of funding from the federal government. “We’re still in Stage I of the planning phase,” said Dustin Annison, LaDOTD public information officer. “The project's been on hold for about two years now.”
He said the project consisted of two portions – the main bridge and Westlake interchange. “There’s contamination in the soil and that has to be mitigated before we get clearance from the feds,” Annison said. “Also, there’s no funding for the project.”
One of the largest chemical spills in U.S. History happened in Lake Charles. In the summer of 1993, state officials detected high ethylene dichloride (EDC) and other contaminates in the Calcasieu estuary.
It was not until March, 1994, however, that the public learned that EDC was leaking from a pipeline connecting a ConocoPhillips Marine Terminal with a storage tank at Conoco's Westlake Facility. Conoco began an emergency cleanup under the direction of the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
A reported 1.6 million pounds of EDC was recovered from the soil during that initial cleanup phase.
What is EDC?
The chemical compound 1,2-dichloroethane, commonly known by its old name of ethylene dichloride (EDC,) is a chlorinated hydrocarbon, mainly used to produce vinyl chloride monomer, which is mainly used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC.)
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated in its “Report on Carcinogens” that EDC is “...reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen...” In addition, EDC exposure can result in serious and permanent damage to the heart, central nervous system, liver, kidneys, lungs, gastrointestinal system, eyes, and skin, and commonly results in depression, memory loss, and adverse personality changes.
Litigation resulted as workers alleged bodily injury claims against Conoco, Condea Vista Chemical Company and a number of contractors involved in the initial cleanup. Efforts to protect drinking water and clean up EDC contamination continue, however. State officials say DEQ is working with Conoco, but it's a slow process.
It will take between 30 to 50 years to remove all of the contaminated groundwater, according to Annison. “ConocoPhillips is studying ways to speed up the process,” he said. Officials at Conoco confirmed an environmental study is underway.
We are in the process of obtaining environmental data from the area. Once we have completed our assessment of the new data, we will work closely with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality on the development, approval and implementation of our plans to initiate clean-up of the remaining EDC," said Carol Collins, Public Relations Director with ConocoPhillips.
The I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge project is eligible for Federal funding under the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (HBRRP) – a program of the Federal Highway Administration.
According to a government Web site: “HBRRP funds may be used for a structurally deficient or functionally obsolete highway bridge on any public road with a new facility constructed in the same general traffic corridor.”
The I-10 bridge is one of the state’s bridges labeled “structurally deficient,” which puts it in the same category as the one that collapsed into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007. In fact, under the U.S. Department of Transportation's rating system, the Calcasieu Bridge scored dramatically lower than the doomed Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
On the same 1-to-100 scale that gave the Minneapolis bridge a “sufficiency rating” of 50, the Calcasieu River Bridge was given the rating of 24.9.
Gene Caldwell, LaDOTD Assistant District Administrator Operations, said the number reflects factors such as structural adequacy and safety, serviceability and functional obsolescence. “It doesn't meet today's standards,” he said.
He said the bridge was built in the late 1940s and first opened for traffic in Sept., 1951. Since that time, design standards have changed and the volume of traffic has increased significantly. Caldwell said the designation does not necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe, but it is one of the factors used to determine if a bridge is at risk. Also, the rating determines if it qualifies for federal money.
“Anything below a 50 rating qualifies for federal bridge replacement,” he said.
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean the state is allocated more money to fund the project. The state receives one, predetermined amount of federal money annually. Currently, funds have not been allocated for I-10 bridge replacement.
A funding window is opening for the project to move forward, however. Congress is ready to start work on a massive transportation bill that will take legislative form early next year. Competition for federal funds Many worthy projects nationwide will be competing for these limited federal funds.
Hal McMillin, Calcasieu Police Juror from Westlake, said competition is fierce and political support is critical. “The community and all elected officials need to unify in a team effort to lobby the federal committees to make sure this stays as a top priority in order to get funding for this project,” he said.
LaDOTD -- the agency charged with administering these federal funds -- must administer the available funds wisely, fairly and in the best interest of all citizens. That’s why McMillin and others are optimistic that some funding will be available soon.
“The rebuilding of the I-10 bridge is not just a Calcasieu Parish problem,” he said. “It has national importance to the transportation infrastructure of this nation with I-10 being a major corridor for the U.S.”
CPPJ Division of Planning and Development Director James Vickers said local government performed various studies, listened to concerns expressed by various interest groups and citizens, then voted – first as separate entities, then as members of Imperial Calcasieu Regional Planning and Development’s Transportation Committee. “It’s essential to get some appropriation with the next transportation bill,” Vickers said. “We’ve got to start now. The more we delay, the more we put the public at risk.”
He said with the committee’s vote, state highway officials are moving forward with the planning process, which includes preliminary designs and cost estimates for the Federal Highway Administration and members of the Calcasieu Congressional Delegation. Although the local consensus is in agreement with the need to build a new Interstate-10 bridge, the decision did not receive unanimous support from local constituents and elected leaders.
Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach voted against the state’s recommendation of a vertical clearance of 73 feet. The mayor cited a difference of opinion, preferring a clearance of 90 feet. He said a special study comparing bridge heights of 73 and 90 feet resulted in an analysis showing construction costs – and truck-related crashes -- were not significantly higher.
In addition, he said Friendships Unlimited, Central Crude, Inc., and Cal-CaM Recycling favored a proposed height of 90 feet. Mayor Roach said these businesses have the option of petitioning the U.S. Coast Guard to raise the height of the bridge design. That’s because the state has to send its plans to the U.S. Coast Guard for its review and approval before the project can move forward. The mayor said he would not stand in the way of unified support for the project.
“I personally will make sure that the height issue does not affect the funding process of a new I-10 bridge,” he said. What will the project cost? Last year, it was reported that construction costs were approximately $128 million.
Tony DuCote, LaDOTD Project Management Director, said this figure is not accurate. He said his department is currently working to update the cost of the project. Although he declined to speculate, local officials estimate current construction costs of a bridge of this size to range anywhere from $150 million to $200 million.