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As Rocheport bridge falls, questions surrounding its environmental impact arise

The Rocheport Interstate 70 Bridge was demolished on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, between Cooper and Boone counties in Missouri. The demolition dropped close to 6 million pounds of steel into the Missouri River.
Bailey Stover/Bailey Stover
Columbia Missourian
Environmentalists raise concerns following the Rocheport bridge demolition.

For years, the Missouri Department of Transportation has planned for a replacement of the Rocheport bridge which was coming into disrepair.

 Now that it’s been demolished, local environmental activists worry about what comes next.

 In the Fall of 2021, the Missouri Department of Transportation broke ground on a new bridge that would be twice the width of its predecessor, could stand for a hundred years and carried a $240 million-dollar price tag.

 But how does someone demolish a 60-year-old bridge? That was the question that MODOT engineer Mike Schupp had alongside the LUNDA contracting company the department partnered with.

 “I’ve seen a lot of different bridges but really nothing to this magnitude,” Schupp said. “Just everything’s bigger.”

 LUNDA was hired to oversee the bridge’s demolition. Multiple plans were considered for the bridge’s destruction, including tearing it piece by piece.

 The cost was too great and they resorted to strategically placing explosions around the bridge to allow for a smooth fall into the Missouri.

 The demolition date was set for Sunday, Sept. 10.

 Crowds of people gathered at multiple locations. Some by the side of I-70, the atrium located in Rocheport and others even floated on boats to get as close as possible to the explosion.

 Mike Peters, a Boone County fire lieutenant, told spectators at the I-70 location to open their mouths so their ears won’t pop.

 “There’s 28 charges, each charge is approximately 145 decibels,” Peters said. “Hearing is endangered at 90”

 The Rocheport bridge boldly stood for decades and on this day, it proudly fell.

“Our concern is obviously, not everyone is going to take the care to remove all of that debris."
Lara Cox

 With the truss now on the river, barges swoop in in a race against the clock.

 The US Coast Guard granted Mike Schupp’s demolition team only 24 hours to clear off 300 feet of the bridge to make way for barges and other water transportation.

 “Once we put it in the water, the clock starts ticking,” Schupp said. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to meet that 24 hour deadline.”

 70 hours later, MODOT announced the 300 feet are finally cleared.

 But even though MODOT assured all of the steel would be cleared and recycled, local activists are on the fence about the damage the demolition could still pose for the Missouri river’s ecosystem.

 Two boats floated by the river on Thursday, Sept. 7. Days before the bridge’s collapse.

 The Missouri River Relief non-profit group traveled to show Journalism school students the river area and pointed out their worries about the bridge’s explosion.

 “Our concern is obviously, not everyone is going to take the care to remove all of that debris,” Lara Cox, the group’s education coordinator said. “Especially if you’re on a timeline and you’re rushing, then you might not end up with the work that you should be doing.”

 Missouri is no stranger to seeing its waters polluted by bridge collapses. In May of this year, Deer Creek saw styrofoam fall into the lake after it was found to be encrusted within a bridge demolition.

 Steve Schnarr is the River Relief group’s executive director. He says the group did a river cleanup recently near Weldon Springs and saw what improper bridge cleanup looks like.

 “One of the pieces of debris that was picked up was a piece of an old bridge and it was under the new bridge,” Schnarr said. “That demolition happened… I don’t remember, ten years ago. There’s always junk laying around.”

 MODOT says all metal from the bridge will be recycled and are working with third-party contractors to leave the river just like they found it.

 Schnarr says he remains skeptical of promises like these.

 “Their job is to clean up whatever’s laying around, but it never gets totally cleaned up,” Schnarr said. “It’s just something we want to do when we have a chance.”

 While the group doesn’t have concrete plans yet, it says it hopes to visit the site soon to ensure nothing remains to contaminate the river.

Tadeo Ruiz is a Freshman in the Missouri School of Journalism from Mexico City. He's a reporter and producer for KBIA.
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