In an attempt to avoid a prolonged legal battle, Pinal County officials met with representatives of several gravel mining companies Tuesday and asked for cooperation in replacing the Schnepf Road bridge and repairing the Queen Creek bed.
The bridge, just east of the town of Queen Creek, has been closed since last spring after it was damaged by runoff from February rainstorms. The bridge, built in 1967, is supported by 30-foot cylindrical piers originally buried 20 feet into the creek bed. In the February runoff, 10 feet of the creek bed washed away, further exposing the piers.
The bridge closure has lengthened emergency vehicle response times to the area and jammed traffic, county officials said.
Though an analysis of exactly what caused the bridge to fail has not been done, county officials believe gravel mining operations contributed to erosion that allowed powerful runoff to damage the bridge. CEMEX, Gravel Resources of Arizona, Ready Mix, Rinker Materials, Rocky Mountain Mining and Southwest Rock Products all have operations in the creek area.
“The full capacity of the bridge has been drastically reduced,” said Guillermo Garcia, a hydrologist with Pinal County Flood Control. “We do not know if everyone in this area is responsible for the final condition of the bridge. That question remains to be answered.”
Garcia said that if the situation isn’t remedied, runoff from the creek could flood the Central Arizona Project canal when heavy rains come again.
“That is a disaster, because it would flood Maricopa County,” he said. “We have a real potential for loss of life and property.”
The bridge is west of the canal and east of nearby homes.
In January, the county board of supervisors hired law firm Helm & Kyle to assist in negotiations or a possible lawsuit.
“To us, the photographic evidence was pretty compelling and would be pretty compelling to a jury as well,” said Roberta Livesay, an attorney with the Tempe firm.
Jim Wales, who owns land in the area mined by CEMEX, said he wanted the county to be honest about its own effect on the bridge.
“We’re going to walk out of (the next meeting), and we’re going to go to court if the county is not legitimate also,” Wales said.
Wales and other gravel company representatives said they had evidence that one of the gravel pits was originally owned by the county and that the county had changed the flow of the creek by dumping cement pieces in it.
Officials asked the companies to return in early April if they would like to continue working on a solution.