Crucial East Coast highway bridge closed

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Crucial East Coast highway bridge closed
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, left, walks with Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt alongside walls separating the north and southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The tops of the walls were designed to run parallel to one another, but they separated, at left, after four support columns began to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to the columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An official walks toward a wall, right, separating the north and southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The tops of the walls were designed to run parallel to one another, but they separated after four support columns began to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to the columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt, right, tries to fix a state seal that fell off of a podium as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, left, speaks at a news conference in front of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to tilting support columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Officials stand alongside walls separating the north and southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The tops of the walls were designed to run parallel to one another, but they separated after four support columns began to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to the columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, left, listens as Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt speaks at a news conference in front of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to tilting support columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Workers remove a pile of dirt next to the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The bridge was closed Monday after the discovery of tilting support columns, and officials suspect that the dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks. Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt ordered immediate inspections of major bridges in the state on Thursday to see if they might have any problems similar to the I-495 bridge.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A sign marks a state property line in front of a pile of dirt next to the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. Signs and fencing were installed around the site after the bridge was closed Monday due to the discovery of tilting support columns. Officials suspect that the dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said his agency was checking under bridges across the state to make sure the state's property is properly marked. He also ordered immediate inspections of major bridges in the state on Thursday to see if they might have any problems similar to the I-495 bridge. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A pile of dirt stands next to the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The bridge was closed Monday after the discovery of tilting support columns, and officials suspect that the dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Workers walk across the Interstate 495 bridge spanning the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014, after it was closed Monday due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks. Officials suspect that a large mound of dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: The I-495 bridge over the Christina River remains closed June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: A DelDot vehicle drives on I-495 at the closed bridge over the Christina River June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: The closed I-495 bridge over the Christina River remains closed to traffic June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: Workers remove a 100-foot pile of dirt left by a contractor for several years under the I-495 bridge over the Christina River June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. Engineers believe the pile of dirt could be a factor in the tilting support columns. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: Trucks and barriers block the entrance to I-495 north to the bridge over the Christina River June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: Inspectors survey the I-495 bridge over the Christina River June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - JUNE 04: Inspectors survey the I-495 bridge over the Christina River June 4, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware. The bridge was closed indefinitely after four support columns were discovered to be tilting. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Lanes in both directions are empty on Interstate 495 near the route's bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A worker inspects the underside of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
In this June 3, 2014 photo, workers stand between the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River, left, and a dirt pile near Wilmington, Del., after the bridge was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said engineers are looking at all geotechnical issues and have determined that the dirt pile, which appears to be partly in the transportation department's right of way, could be a factor. "We don't know what the effect of that weight is" underground, he said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, front right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Surveyors work below the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An official walks alongside walls separating the north and southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. The tops of the walls were designed to run parallel to one another, but they separated after four support columns began to tilt. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, will be closed for at least several weeks for emergency repairs to the columns. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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By RANDALL CHASE

DOVER, Del. (AP) -- Delaware transportation department officials have examined aerial images as they investigate a mountain of dirt that grew to about two stories high and 100 yards long over the past few years, possibly causing an interstate bridge just a few yards away to tilt.

Engineers think that as a contractor dumped more and more dirt next to Interstate 495 bridge, the ground shifted under the weight and caused the bridge columns to start tilting. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 through Wilmington, Delaware, and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, has been closed since Monday. It will be at least several weeks before it is reopened.

Gov. Jack Markell planned to visit the site Thursday. As questions mounted, state officials said part of the dirt pile appeared to be on state land, and that a fence that once cordoned off the government's property had been removed.

"In 2012, there was some stuff out there but not very much; in 2013, a little more," Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said of Google Earth images showing the mound grow. "Right now obviously there's a lot more dirt."

The contractor is working with state officials to remove the dirt from the site, which he was allowed to use under an arrangement with a company that leases land next to the bridge.

"I have absolutely no idea what happened, I really don't," said James Thomas Jr., 60. "I'm not a structural engineer. I'm not a bridge engineer."

Officials have said a system to shore up and brace the bridge will have to be designed, which will take weeks. State officials do not have an estimated price tag but have indicated they might seek federal funds to help pay for the repairs.

Bhatt said officials did not know about the dirt mound until Monday, when engineers visited the bridge in response to a report received late last week. That report came from an engineer with a private company who was in the area on an unrelated project and saw cracking in the soil around the dirt pile. The engineer then spotted the leaning columns and contacted the transportation agency.

Built in 1974, the bridge is scheduled for inspection every two years and was last examined in October 2012.

Thomas, who sells the dirt for fill, said he has worked in the area around the Port of Wilmington, just down the road from the bridge, for 41 years, running a paving company and other businesses. He said no one has ever expressed concern about him storing it next to the bridge.

The DuPont Co. owns the land where the dirt is located and leases it out to a materials handing company called Port Contractors Inc.

Thomas's company, Keogh Contracting, has an arrangement with Port Contractors, which was founded by his father, to store dirt on the property.

Michael Evanko, president of Port Contractors, said the company is allowing Thomas to temporarily store the dirt being removed from underneath the bridge on another parcel just down the road.

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