ST. PAUL, Minn.–Pounded and strained by heavy traffic and weakened by missing bolts and cracking steel, the failed interstate bridge over the Mississippi River also faced a less obvious enemy: Birds, specifically pigeons.
Inspectors began documenting the build-up of pigeon dung on the span near downtown Minneapolis two decades ago.
Experts say the corrosive guano deposited all over the bridge’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 build-up 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 didn’t prevent the build-up of droppings elsewhere.
Pigeon droppings contain ammonia and acids, said chemist Neal Langerman, of the American Chemical Society. If the dung isn’t 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 wasn’t saying absolutely that pigeon dung factored into the collapse of the bridge, but the problem is familiar to bridge inspectors everywhere.
The Colorado Department of Transportation spent so much time cleaning pigeon manure off bridges that it’s researching new ways to keep the birds away from its spans.
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