Investigations aren’t finished, but officials say someone started the fire beneath the highway, apparently fueled in part by construction materials — flexible plastic and fiberglass tubes — that the state had stored on a lot for nearly six years.
It was enough to shock other states into taking a look at themselves and asking: What exactly are we storing under our elevated roads? And could it pose a threat?
To address these questions, CNN contacted departments of transportation in all 50 states. Of the 44 that responded, more than two-thirds said the Atlanta I-85 collapse prompted them to reinspect their bridges or consider changes to their storage policies.
Some said they didn’t allow material under bridges anyway, but practices vary from state to state, and even the definition of “hazardous” may be part of the reckoning.
Before the Atlanta fire, few would have identified these tubes — including the plastic ones, otherwise known as high-density polyethylene, or HDPE — as being dangerous, said Pete Rahn, secretary of Maryland’s transportation department.
Until now, Maryland might have allowed contractors or its own workers to store HDPE on state-owned space under bridges during a construction project, Rahn said. Not anymore.
“(It was) unimaginable that plastic conduit could cause damage like this,” Rahn said.
Meanwhile a federal investigation into the bridge collapse is ongoing and the Federal Highway Administration is pushing states to take another look at their practices.
“Until the investigation is completed, this event highlights the need for concern about storing materials under bridges,” Thomas D. Everett, associate administrator of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) infrastructure office, wrote to state transportation officials last month.
What happened in Atlanta?
Georgia says it is one of the states reviewing its policies.