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Monday | 05 May, 2014 | 10:54 am

A scheme for Bay Bridge scrap

By Nick Wright

As a span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge comes down, requests for salvaged material spring up

May 5, 2014 - When it opened in 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge boasted several headline-grabbing superlatives. A 1933 Popular Science article outlines them well: It had the world’s deepest bridge pier at 242 feet below sea level, a 10,176-foot span of a combined double-cantilever, five-span through truss and a truss causeway—the world’s longest at the time, and the largest diameter bore tunnel through Yerba Buena Island, the bridge’s midpoint, at 76 feet wide by 56 feet high. 

The bridge has created headlines more recently for the replacement of its 1.2-mile double-decker East Span with a side-by-side configuration designed to better withstand the region’s seismic activity. The new span opened to traffic in September 2013. Meanwhile, the former east span, which was closed one month before the new span opened and 24 years after the bridge-rattling Loma Prieta earthquake, is gradually being dismantled.

But there are some groups looking to get their hands on the steel before it heads to scrapyards. One of them is Bay Bridge House, whose vision is to incorporate the East Span’s old steel in a 12,000-square-foot multi-use space somewhere on the San Francisco Bay with a view of the new span. It would serve as a Class A space suitable for executive functions, or have overnight accommodations through AirBnB, the web service that connects travelers with rentable lodging. It would ultimately be a sustainable, eco-friendly monument to the bridge, explains David Grieshaber, a technology entrepreneur who is spearheading the Bay Bridge House.

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The idea came about one day two years ago when he was driving across the bridge.

“My wife and I were saying, ‘What will they do with this steel?’” he recalls. He contacted Caltrans, the bridge’s owner, and was told the steel would be sold to China as scrap. Eventually, he formulated the goal to save some of the steel for both locals and tourists to have as a historical monument and icon of architecture and design. “We should really be keeping it here to enjoy,” Grieshaber says. The plan would include repurposed concrete and glass, similar to the Big Dig House outside Boston, whose structural base is made from construction material salvaged from the Interstate 93 Big Dig tunnel project.

Preserved steel

Like most material supplied for big, decades-old infrastructure projects, the Bay Bridge steel’s condition beneath the epoxy lead paint is surprisingly good. Even though it has some 1 millimeter deep pitting from wear and tear, the steel has the original 1933 mill stamp from Carnegie Steel’s facilities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and possibly Washington, according to Grieshaber. The bridge had consumed over 6 percent of the total steel output of the U.S. in 1933, according to Caltrans.

“It’s in beautiful condition,” Grieshaber says. An associate on the project who is also an artist acquired a steel S curve from an earthquake retrofit of the Oakland side of the bridge. That steel was waterjet cut into a trophy for the winner of the Bay Bridge House design competition.

There’s more steel where that came from, too, as crews from California Engineering Contractors and Silverado Contractors are in the process of tearing down the East Span in the reverse order it was assembled almost eight decades ago. But wrangling steel from Caltrans, which is beholden to bureaucratic forces, is proving difficult. 

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Ultimately, Schnitzer Steel in nearby Oakland is processing most of the bridge’s steel into scrap. As a vendor on the contract, it’s not in Schnitzer’s power to release that material to groups like Bay Bridge House. Instead, it directs requests to Caltrans, says Jackie Lynn Ray, the Schnitzer’s public relations and government affairs manager.

Schnitzer bids on the steel through California Engineering—currently, it’s processing steel from the first demolition phase. The entire East Span will yield just under 60,000 tons of scrap steel. At Schnitzer’s 30-acre scrapyard, the steel is torch cut or sheared after it’s trucked in. Before Schnitzer opened its Oakland facility in 1961, on-site foundries owned by the previous company, a ship building outfit called Moore Dry Dock Company, provided the caissons for the Bay Bridge’s West Span, Ray notes.

“I was hoping it was the East Span so we could show the whole life cycle,” she says. Once the scrapped steel leaves Schnitzer’s yard, it gets sent to domestic smelters and sometimes foreign ones. As for the Bay Bridge steel,  “the material that has come in has not gone to China,” she adds.

For groups like Bay Bridge House seeking steel from the massive bridge, that might make acquiring it that much easier.

For full updates on the East Span demolition, visit baybridgeinfo.org.

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