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50,000 tons of Baltimore’s Key Bridge steel diced for recycling

A worker uses a cutting torch Friday on a piece of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. Large pieces of the wreckage are being cut down at a 5-acre site at Tradepoint Atlantic before being taken to EMR, a metal recycler.

Posted on April 17, 2024

As one worker cut into a piece of steel with a torch, another operated an excavator — missing at first, but then picking up another portion of what used to be the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The pieces they each wrangled Friday couldn’t have weighed more than one short ton, less than 0.02% of the 50,000 short tons of bridge wreckage that fell into the nearby Patapsco River. Yet they represented a tiny step in a painstaking, arduous process.

When the Key Bridge collapsed into the midnight-black water in the early hours of March 26, it created a seemingly insurmountable task: clearing the channel of debris and the massive cargo ship that created the mess. The scale of the salvage job is difficult to comprehend, and although crews have begun to remove the wreckage from the channel, piece by piece, one can’t simply throw thousands of tons into a trash bin.

Instead, a nearby facility was swiftly tasked with processing the crumpled steel and concrete.

Disasters demand such improvisation. The Cruise Maryland Terminal is now a center of salvage and recovery operations. A community center was converted to assist small businesses. And Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point, a logistics hub where freight trains, ships and trucks meet, has turned 5 of its 3,300 acres into a scrap steel processing center for the remains of the bridge.

Those acres had sat unused for years and were overgrown with shrubs. But shortly after the bridge collapse, it became clear that they and Tradepoint Atlantic were a unique asset. With plenty of land and a location within sight of the accident, Tradepoint readied those acres for the job of dividing the Key Bridge into small bits that can be taken away by trucks.

Because of its location east of the bridge, Tradepoint’s access to the shipping channel has not been blocked by the wreckage. It’s accepted roughly double its usual amount of cargo. On Friday, longshoremen rolled Mitsubishis off a 656-foot ship, while  — amid salt piles and aluminum ingots — crews cut up the steel debris.

Contractors employed by the state and federal government now have an agreement with Tradepoint Atlantic, a decade-old, privately owned hub on the site of a former Bethlehem Steel plant, to use it to carve the bridge into pieces that will ultimately be taken to a recycling center.

The operation follows several steps. Crews in the river identify and cut pieces of bridge, some weighing hundreds of short tons. Cranes lift them onto barges, which take them to Tradepoint. The barge’s crane drops the pieces onto the land, where workers slice them up.

Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, likened the process to “eating an elephant.”

“There’s shears, there’s grapplers, there’s a lot of heavy equipment that’s used to kind of pull apart and cut the steel,” he said.

Scraps of metal cut down from larger pieces recovered from the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge are piled on a five-acre lot at Tradepoint Atlantic.

Once at Tradepoint, the focus is on turning the steel into manageable chunks, rather than any analysis of the broken structure.

The National Transportation Safety Board has “satisfactorily completed and documented their investigation and data collection of the bridge abutments and truss” and has “released” the steel for processing, according to Bobby Petty, a spokesperson for Key Bridge Response Unified Command. That’s the salvage operation led by the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Transportation Authority and Maryland State Police.

Viewing the wreckage — as residents continue to do, flocking to lookout spots to get a glimpse — there seems to be little progress since the morning after the 984-foot Dali lost power and crashed into one of the bridge’s piers, knocking it down.

But authorities say chipping away daily will lead to tangible results. The Corps expects to open a limited access channel with a depth of 35 feet by the end of April and reopen the 50-foot federal channel, the one the massive container ship was using when it reported losing power, by the end of May.

In addition to removing the wreckage, salvage efforts need to refloat the Dali. The ship, which weighs more than 100,000 short tons, is stuck in the river bottom atop a turned-off natural gas pipeline (authorities declined to say how deeply that pipeline is buried). To lighten the ship, 38 of the more than 4,000 containers had been removed as of Thursday, with plans to take off at least another 100, which will be returned to Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal.

Representatives of Unified Command have sought to emphasize the challenge of clearing the Patapsco. Much of the wreckage has sunk into the muck, sonar images show, complicating salvage efforts. Two of the bridge spans are in a “big, mangled mess,” said Col. Estee Pinchasin of the Corps.

Once bridge pieces are cut and transported to Tradepoint, more work lies ahead — more cutting, more transporting. All the while, on the same Tradepoint property, ships are quickly unloaded of cargo and room is made for the next one to arrive.

Evan Mackey, a demolition division manager with Bolander, led efforts to clean up a Minnesota bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007. That took months. He called the goliath process “surreal.”

“You just have to take it one piece at a time,” he said. “Every little bit helps. Every little bit is getting you closer to your goal.”


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