Pigeons Took Toll On Failed Bridge

Sections of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge are clear of vehicles as a bicyclist passes by on University Avenue, Aug. 16, 2007, in Minneapolis. Scores of vehicles were removed from the bridge and the Mississippi River as debris removal and the search for missing victims continued following the Aug. 1 collapse that killed 13 people and injured about 100 others. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Pounded and strained by heavy traffic and weakened by missing bolts and cracking steel, the failed Minnesota bridge over the Mississippi River also faced a less obvious enemy: Birds.

Inspectors began documenting the buildup of pigeon dung on the span near downtown Minneapolis two decades ago.

Experts say the corrosive guano deposited all over the span's framework helped the steel beams rust faster.

Although investigators have yet to identify the cause of the bridge's Aug. 1 collapse, which killed at least 13 people and injured about 100, the pigeon problem is one of many factors that dogged the structure.

"There is a coating of pigeon dung on steel with nest and heavy buildup on the inside hollow box sections," inspectors wrote in a 1987-1989 report.

In 1996, screens were installed over openings in the bridge's beams to keep pigeons from nesting there, but that did not prevent the building of droppings elsewhere.

Pigeon droppings contain ammonia and acids, said chemist Neal Langerman, an officer with the health and safety division of the American Chemical Society. If the dung is not washed away, it dries out and turns into a concentrated salt. When water gets in and combines with the salt and ammonia, it creates small electrochemical reactions that rust the steel underneath.

"Every time you get a little bit of moisture there, you wind up having a little bit of electrochemistry occurring and you wind up with corrosion," said Langerman. "Over a long term, it might in fact cause structural weaknesses."

Langerman emphasized that he was not saying pigeon dung factored into the collapse of the 40-year-old bridge. "Let's let the highway transportation and safety people do their job," he said.

The problem is familiar to bridge inspectors everywhere.

The Colorado Department of Transportation spent so much time cleaning pigeon manure off bridges that it is embarking on a two-year research project looking for ways to keep pigeons away from its spans.

Keeping pigeons off bridges usually requires a multi-pronged strategy that can include netting to block holes and surfaces, spikes to keep them from landing, and sometimes poisoning, shooting or trapping the birds, said John Hart, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an update on its findings in the collapse Wednesday, saying investigators are looking at whether chemicals used in an automated de-icing system had any corrosive properties.

The state Transportation Department was not concerned about the system; in fact, the agency is planning to install a similar system on the replacement bridge, said Khani Sahebjam, a state transportation engineer.

The de-icing elements are inside the concrete deck, Sahebjam said, so he would not expect them to pose a structural problem.