Georgia DOT changes storage rules after I-85 bridge collapse

The National Transportation Safety Board recently warned transportation officials across the country about storing combustible material under bridges in light of last year’s I-85 bridge fire in Atlanta. (WSB-TV via AP)

The National Transportation Safety Board recently warned transportation officials across the country about storing combustible material under bridges in light of last year’s I-85 bridge fire in Atlanta. (WSB-TV via AP)

More than a year after a section of I-85 in Buckhead collapsed in flames, the Georgia Department of Transportation has officially declared it will no longer store the kind of materials that fed the fire under state bridges.

A new department policy finalized last month states that “only non-combustible materials may be stored under bridges.” The policy also includes minimum requirements for storing construction materials like the ones that fueled the blaze that destroyed a portion of I-85 in March 2017.

The department did not respond to a request for comment about the new policy. Previously, GDOT has said it has already stopped storing combustible material under Georgia bridges.

Last year's I-85 fire closed one of the major gateways to downtown Atlanta and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of commuters for six weeks. The blaze, allegedly set by a homeless man, quickly spread to high-density plastic conduit GDOT had stored under the highway for years.

Last month the National Transportation Safety Board found the material GDOT stored under the bridge contributed to the blaze. The agency also warned transportation officials across the country about the dangers of storing such material under bridges.

After the I-85 fire, GDOT surveyed bridges statewide and found no other combustible material stored beneath them. And it vowed it would not longer store such material under bridges.

The new policy formalizes that promise. Among its provisions:

*Only non-combustible material should be stored under bridges and high-voltage power lines.

*Unattended permanent storage sites must be protected by chain-link fences at least six feet high, with gates that can be secured against trespassers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the storage area under the I-85 bridge was fenced, but the gate was sometimes left open.

*Combustible debris should be kept at least 40 feet from stored materials.

*Tarps used to protect stored materials against the weather should be fire-retardant.

The policy also includes detailed provisions for storing combustible material like plastic conduit, construction barrels, lumber and old tires.

Though GDOT has acknowledged its stored materials contributed to the I-85 fire, it has maintained that the main cause was arson.

In December, the case of the man accused of setting the blaze, Basil Eleby, was transferred to Fulton County’s Behavioral Health Treatment Court. If Eleby completes a court mental health program, the charges against him will be dropped.

“This policy confirms what we all knew, that the cause of this fire was directly related to GDOT negligent practices, not a criminal act committed by Mr. Eleby,” Mawuli Davis, his attorney, said of the new storage rules. “Unfortunately, people still see Mr. Eleby and believes he was responsible.”

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