Asbestos Complicates Development of Hike and Bike Trails

CHARLESTON, West Virginia—City leaders are trying to figure out how to turn a 103-year-old railroad span into a bridge for hikers and bicyclists.

Fire blocks used in an old railroad trestles across the Kanawha River in West Virginia are problematic for Charleston officials. These fire blocks contain asbestos.

Some are actually falling off now,” City Engineer Chris Knox said Thursday. “I don’t know what the requirements are, but I’m pretty sure they’ll have to be abated. We’ll probably have to put up new fire blocks, using a different material.”

Asbestos consists of long, thin fibrous crystals and may be mixed with other substances in order to resist heat, electricity and chemical damage. Due to these characteristics, asbestos was used in many buildings and other structures throughout the 1900s. One estimation is that up to 80 percent of all buildings constructed before 1978 had asbestos within the design.

Once asbestos is damaged, it is released into the air and inhaled, lodging the fibers into organs—such as the heart, abdomen, and lungs—from which it cannot be removed. Exposure may lead to various asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Charlestons officials are trying to incorporate the trestle into a planned hike and bike trail. The asbestos blocks were used specifically in this location to help prevent the spread of fires, but they are beginning to fall off and deteriorate. These blocks will have to be removed before the hike and bike trail can be developed.

Officials are also very concerned about whether creosote, which was used as a preservative on the trestle’s timbers, could have contaminated the soil along the path that is being proposed.