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Old June 24th, 2009, 05:50 PM   #101
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City wants bridge collapse rubble removed from park
Minn. worries about ruining evidence

12 June 2009

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Nearly two years after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, much of its twisted steel remnants sit rusting on a long swath of a leafy park just a half-mile from where the span fell.

It's a somber reminder of an accident that killed 13 people and unnerved the nation. City officials say the shuttered park is costing them money and they want the grim wreckage cleared away to reclaim the scenic riverside spot. State officials are willing to remove it, but lingering lawsuits connected to the collapse have prevented that.

"There's something a little ghoulish about it," said Anne Lundberg, who regularly takes her lunch break walking along a park trail that's just outside a security fence surrounding the wreckage. "It's sort of terrible. When you think about what it is, it's upsetting."

Most of the rubble from the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse was shipped down the river to the plush, narrow park known as the Bohemian Flats. The hulking steel chunks are littered across an area that's about seven football fields long and looks more like an industrial graveyard than a city park.

Rusting piles of green and orange steel beams rest on beds of overgrown weeds. Some of the crumpled girders are partly tucked under thick bushes, while others lie just steps away from the trail that snakes along the riverbank. Behind a chain-linked fence, rows of steel blanket a parking lot.

The delay in clearing the rubble stems from 21 lawsuits filed by victims and their families seeking damages from three private companies involved with the design, inspections and repairs for the old bridge.

Attorneys for the companies say the wreckage could still be evidence and want it to remain intact. However, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has said some pieces might have to be cut apart to be moved. State officials had hoped to ship the bridge pieces to the suburbs, but a Hennepin County judge refused to waive the state's liability if the move spoiled evidence.

Lawyers on both sides of the lawsuits say their clients don't care where the wreckage is kept.

"It's really a mess of lawsuits, and it's going to be a while before it's all resolved," said Kyle Hart, an attorney for one of the companies, Progressive Contractors Inc.

On Friday, a company that worked on the bridge's design asked a judge to keep it out of the lawsuits, claiming that it had legal immunity because its work was done more than four decades before the collapse. Another hearing is set for Aug. 10.

Officials estimate it's costing Minneapolis $60,000 in lost revenue every year that Bohemian Flats is out of commission, and forces the city to delay claiming several million dollars in state and federal improvement grants for the park.

"It would be nice if we could use our park," said Scott Vreeland, a city park commissioner.

The park is a popular site for canoe launches, with a pay parking lot used by joggers, bikers and walkers on the river trail. It's that parking revenue, plus money lost from a tour boat company no longer able to operate at Bohemian Flats, that the city is losing.

Transportation department spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said the steel comes from the portion of the bridge that was the focus of the NTSB investigation that found design errors caused the collapse. Other parts of the bridge was scrapped and recycled long ago.

Transportation officials estimate the 1,550 tons of steel is worth about $116,000, and once the lawsuits are done it could be sold for scrap or recycled. The wreckage may be an eyesore, but at least it's not causing environmental damage. Steel and rust are fairly harmless, said Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

The city's permit allowing the wreckage to be at Bohemian Flats expires Monday. After it expires, the steel will stay there while officials figure out what to do and they hope that won't take too long.

"We're losing money every day that park sits idle," said Nick Eoloff, project manager for the Park Board. "We want it back."

So does Sara Veblen-Mortenson, who has used the park's trail for the past decade. Each time she walks by the wreckage, she remembers the day the bridge fell.

"I think about the tragedies of the people whose lives that were involved," she said. "It's a constant reminder."


Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Jeff Baenen contributed to this report.
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