Explosives might be buried near Mercer viaduct project site
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Friday, July 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
State officials planning a long-awaited bridge project in Mercer County have a potentially explosive situation on their hands.
It's not a debate over the merits of the $12.1 million PennDOT project to rebuild the West Middlesex viaduct in the tiny borough 70 miles north of Pittsburgh.
It involves actual explosives, believed to have been buried decades ago somewhere near the 718-foot span over the Shenango River that PennDOT will replace in 2016. The agency could spend up to $100,000 digging for the explosives and safely removing and destroying them.
“Would (construction activities) be enough to set off the explosives? We don't know. But it's not a chance we're going to take,” said James Carroll, district spokesman for PennDOT.
An elderly Mercer County man contacted authorities last year after PennDOT held a public meeting on the project. The man, whom authorities would not identify, reported that he was 10 years old when he helped his father bury five wooden boxes of dynamite and a box of nitroglycerine caps in a cellar near the bridge in the 1930s. The cellar has long since been covered.
The man said his father, a contractor, found the boxes while demolishing a home to make way for the viaduct, which opened in 1941.
“He gave us a pretty credible story,” Carroll said.
The McLean, Va.-based consulting firm Science Applications International Corp. combed the explosives' suspected burial ground with what amounts to an ultra-high-powered metal detector and identified three areas where they might be located, possibly as deep as 10 feet underground, Carroll said.
It's unknown whether the explosives, if they are found, will have any kick left. Years of being buried in moist ground could have rendered them harmless.
But the consultants said the buried nitroglycerin could have crystallized, making the explosives more dangerous than when buried, Carroll said.
“It's impossible to know,” he said.
Carroll said New Jersey-based contractor Reactive Explosive Materials Training Corp. will dig for the explosives by the end of the month.
Several residents said authorities informed them that the bridge would close on Thursday to clear the way for digging. Evacuations could result, depending on the findings.
Carroll said no one in his district could recall buried explosives affecting a project before. In this case, he said, it should not result in delays.
“I think it's a wives' tale,” said Don Gruver, 75, who lives near the western end of the bridge.
Gruver recalled that explosives near the bridge never used to be a concern. He worked at the former Tribby Hardware at the other end of the bridge, which he said “sold dynamite every day.”
“It was no different than handling a 7UP. Someone would come in and ask for six sticks of dynamite and I'd go run down to the basement to get it,” Gruver said. “And we were 20 feet from the bridge. It wasn't even considered dangerous.”
The possibility of explosives has been a big topic of discussion in the borough of about 900 people, particularly at the Golden Bear Tavern. The bar stands at the eastern end of the bridge and is owned by Ron and Cathy Dubrasky, a husband and wife who both sit on borough council.
“It's been a huge topic, but it was that way (before news of the explosives surfaced) because this project is such a big deal,” Cathy Dubrasky said.
The project will lower the east end of the structurally deficient bridge as much as 22 feet, to street level, and reduce it from nine spans to three. In the past, the viaduct needed to rise above the ground before reaching the river to go over railroad tracks, but those are no longer used.
“It's progress, and it needs to be done,” said Joseph J. Walsh, president of O'Neill Coffee Co. on the bridge's east end. “The explosives are a once-in-a-lifetime kind of situation, but you have to roll with it and pray for the best.”
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