Sinkholes spark proposed ban on buried debris

April 17, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

If the earth hadn't collapsed under Wendell and Patricia Hart's driveway and under the pine trees along one side of their property, the couple might never have found out that Carroll County allows builders to bury construction debris on home sites.

The Harts were lucky that no cars were in the driveway of their home near Winfield when the sinkhole opened and that neighborhood children didn't fall into the 12-foot-deep fissure at the side property line.

"If a pet or child had gone down into [the fissure], we'd never have known," Mr. Hart said.

Most of the 300 sinkholes reported to the county government bureau of water resource management in the past four years stem from natural causes, such as the one on Route 31 that left Robert W. Knight fatally injured when his van fell into it early on March 31. That sinkhole was underlain by porous limestone.

But 52 of the 300 reported sinkholes have been positively or tentatively traced to buried construction debris.

Some areas near Eldersburg "look like someone has taken a plane down there and done a bombing run," said Thomas Devilbiss, a county government hydrogeologist. He said construction-debris sinkholes occur after buried material decays.

The county staff wants to prohibit builders from burying leftover construction materials such as concrete blocks, broken bricks, lumber and tree stumps on residential lots.

The proposed change faces opposition from some Environmental Affairs Advisory Board members and possibly from the housing industry, although some local builders already have switched to other debris-disposal methods.

The Harts were able to pinpoint construction burial as the cause of their sinkholes, after neighbors remembered seeing the builder push material into trenches.

Mr. Hart said county regulation is needed and that builders should understand the consequences to the property owner of buried debris.

"The homeowner is stuck with it," he said. "Insurance doesn't cover it, the contractor doesn't want to hear from you, and the county says, 'It's on your property.' "

The Harts and their two sons had lived in their house for five years when the first sinkhole appeared along the side property line.

It was 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. Within weeks, the driveway sinkhole appeared. It was 70 feet by 20 feet.

Mr. Hart estimated that he has spent $700 to $800 to haul in 70 tons of dirt and gravel during the past five years. He expects to spend an additional $150 this spring, but he doesn't know whether that will be the final bill or whether the ground will sink again in the next wet season.

Builders seem to be doing less on-site burial of construction debris, said James E. Slater Jr., county environmental services administrator.

Martin K.P. Hill, president of Masonry Contractors Inc., the largest Carroll-based housing construction company, said he no longer buries construction debris on-site. Smaller lot sizes make burial impractical, he said.

Mr. Hill said his contractors grind the stumps or use an oxygen-fed burning process permitted by the county health department.

The county landfill does not accept tree stumps. Builders are allowed to put waste that doesn't decompose, such as concrete, asphalt paving, broken bricks and block, into the rubble landfill at $40 a ton.

Builders Bruce Devilbiss of Devilbiss Construction Co. and Michele Maley Jeffrey of Heritage Construction Associates Inc. said they take construction debris to the landfill, so they would be unaffected by the proposed regulation.

Roger Blitz, president of Pridemark Custom Home Builders, said he would prefer guidelines to regulation. If tree stumps are buried 15 to 20 feet deep, they petrify rather than decay, he said.

Mr. Blitz contended that a ban on debris burial would raise costs substantially. On a wooded 1-acre lot, for example, he said it might cost $3,000 to $3,500 to bury tree stumps properly, but two to three times that amount to haul them away.

Environmental Advisory Board members T. Edward Lippy, who represents farmers, and Georgia Hoff, who represents the development community, predicted at the board's March meeting that builders would ignore a ban.

Mr. Lippy proposed allowing debris to be buried with conditions spelling out how much and how deep. "Your version isn't going to be practical, isn't going to be lived by," he said.

Mrs. Hoff said any regulation would have to be acceptable to builders. "Otherwise it's going to continued to be buried and you're never going to know it," she said.

The lone voice for the ban came from advisory board member Kevin E. Dayhoff. Mr. Dayhoff, who owns a local landscaping business, said he has clients with sinkholes that took "truckloads and truckloads" to fill.

The board is scheduled to make a formal recommendation to county commissioners at its April 27 meeting. Mr. Slater said he will take the proposal to the local Home Builders Association chapter for discussion.

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