Homeowners' claims of damage from eastern Ohio River bridge blasting often rejected
UTICA, Ind. (WDRB) –From the end of his driveway, Bob Hill can hear the hum of construction work. He lives close enough to the four-lane highway taking shape that he can see it when a line of trees thins for the winter.
Hill welcomes the bridge connecting Utica and Prospect, Ky., opening up land in eastern Clark County for new businesses and homes. Completing the upriver piece of the Ohio River Bridges Project “just makes economic sense,” said Hill, who advocated for the span as a longtime columnist for The Courier-Journal.
But, on a recent tour of his 19th-century farmhouse, Hill pointed to 13 cracks he says developed within the past year. A shelf in the living room fell off the wall due to vibrations, shattering a favorite vase, he said.
Hill claims the problems are the result of blasting for the new roads -- even though his house sits well outside a 500-foot area officially considered at risk for damage from blasting for the new bridge.
Hill is familiar with how vibrations travel in this part of Southern Indiana, where a limestone quarry once operated. Hill said blasts from the quarry used to shake his house when he and his family first moved to Utica in 1975.
“It's very reminiscent of what we dealt with 40 years ago when we first came here,” said Hill, who now operates Hidden Hill Nursery. “So don't tell me it doesn't come this far, because I know it does.”
Residents, elected officials and others have lodged about 140 complaints of blasting damage since July 2013, according to an Indiana Department of Transportation database obtained under the state's public records law. The complaints represent about 80 separate concerns on both sides of the Ohio River, a WDRB News analysis shows.
Homeowners have cited cracks that didn't exist before the detonations, a ruptured water line, broken windows and a backyard sinkhole. One resident has made 10 phone calls about cracks that appeared in his basement and garage walls.
Nearly nine months after she first reported damage to her home, one woman had had enough: “There is no way that the Bridges Project is not at some fault with issues with my home,” she wrote. “Please ask someone to connect with me. I have reached out over and over and have only received a note. No contact – no review – no nothing!”
Ultimately, her damage claim was denied.
As part of the state- and federally-funded construction of the eastern bridge, the companies building the span have taken out an insurance policy to pay claims resulting from blasting damage to nearby properties. But it's not known how many claims have been approved.
Indiana, which oversees the building of the eastern bridge, lets the companies in charge of the blasting and construction work handle those disputes – in some cases, hiring their own claims investigators.
WVB East End Partners, the consortium building the eastern span, doesn't share complete information about the complaints with the state. As a result, there is no public accounting of how the damage claims are resolved.
WVB – a group made up on Walsh Investors LLC of Chicago, Vinci Concessions of France and Bilfinger Project Investments of Germany – declined repeated interview requests for this story.
But in a statement, WVB said the blasting is done according to state laws and the requirements of the bridge contract, and that workers go to “great lengths” to stay within prescribed vibration limits.
Complaints filed by nearby residents are subject to a “thorough investigation,” but WVB declined to share information – such as the number of claims and their status – citing “respect for the property owners' privacy.”
Harold Valentine, president and CEO of HTA Enterprises Inc., the Louisville-based subcontractor performing blasting work for the project, declined to comment.
Will Wingfield, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, did not directly respond to questions sent by e-mail asking if the state is comfortable not knowing how many damage claims have been submitted and their outcome; whether Indiana agrees with allowing the blasting company to choose its own claims investigator; and if the state believes homes farther than 500 feet from blasting sites should have been surveyed prior to detonations.
Wingfield said in a statement that WVB is responsible for the risk associated with blasting and must follow the terms of its contract.
Hill spent a month trying to get HTA to address concerns about cracks in his Utica home, according to records he shared with WDRB. His damage claim was eventually denied.
An investigator hired by HTA determined that “blasting operations would not cause these issues,” according to a letter to Hill. Instead, the investigator concluded that the damage was “typical” of the house settling.
Hill said that conclusion ignores common-sense reality: The damage didn't exist before blasting.
“The house is 150 years old. It's going to settle now?” he said. “You know, we had the '37 flood, the ‘97 flood. Why is it settling now? There's something going on here.”
Analysis: Most claims denied
The only publicly available information about the blasting claims – an Indiana state database – indicates at least 14 property owners have moved beyond a complaint and filed a formal damage claim. Of those, 8 were denied, 2 were paid and 4 are pending. But the database doesn't track the status of other claims or show how all complaints are resolved.
On a late summer day last year, a chunk of rock about 10 inches in diameter crashed into the Bridgepointe Swim and Tennis Club's pool area in Prospect, damaging the baby pool deck and dislodging a fence, club manager Michelle Payne said.
Nearby, neighbor Amy Myers said she and her family were pelted with flyrock as they scrambled to get inside.
“If that had been one week before, children would have been killed in that pool,” Myers said.
The two women, however, have had different experiences getting damage complaints resolved.
Payne said HTA agreed to pay $1,725 to make repairs at the swim club. (Two days after the Sept. 10, 2014 damage occurred, the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement issued $13,500 in fines for blasting violations. HTA has contested $10,000 of the fine, state records show.)
But Myers said blasting damage at her home – dating from mid-2013 – still hasn't been resolved. She estimates that blasts have caused $14,000 in needed repairs.
Indeed, a review of the Indiana database shows that the complaints aren't being handled consistently.
For example, a resident on Springdale Road in eastern Jefferson County filed a damage claim for $2,000 after he found a crack in his chimney flute that he believed was caused by blasting.
“The scientific evidence was lacking, but WVC (the joint venture's construction arm) decided it was a good gesture and ‘the right thing to do,'” and ultimately paid the claim, according to a narrative in the database.
Yet other claims have been denied on the basis of scientific evidence.
Bridgepointe resident Mary Beth Dean said her shower door shattered shortly after a blast, but HTA said in a letter she provided that the vibration levels weren't high enough to cause damage to concrete.
South of Bridgepointe, Mike Hawboldt also questions how thoroughly the complaints of damage are investigated.
Hawboldt, who has lived in his house in the small city of Green Spring since 1999, said 50 to 70 feet of cracks formed in his garage and basement when blasting started, including some that became tripping hazards.
“I called the guys at the bridge company. They never sent anybody out,” Hawboldt said. “I put together all the pictures and everything, sent it to them, waited the 30 days, got no response, called them on 31 (days) and then got an email that said, ‘Oh, you're too far away.' I could have done that with Google Maps.”
He said workers placed a seismograph on top of his lawn and concluded that the blasts didn't cause the damage. But Hawboldt, who does vibration analysis for General Electric Co., said the sensor wasn't anchored to the ground, and that the monitoring occurred on a day with “not much blasting.”
His claim was denied. Hawboldt said his repairs cost $2,500.
Hawboldt said he's spoken to other Green Spring residents who have reported damage, but no one has had a claim approved.
“In fact, I think there's people that have not applied because they realize no one has been successful,” he said. “It's a waste of time.”
Green Spring Mayor Trevor Cravens said in an email that most claims from his city's residents have been denied based on their distance from the blasting area.
In early January, Utica resident Kenny Morrison said he watched as the side of a cabinet in his kitchen came apart and a cracked formed over his door shortly after a large vibration.
“HTA denied Mr. Morrison's damage complaint, asserting that his home was too far from the blast area to be affected and that seismograph readings show that all blasts were within legal safe limits,” according to the Indiana database.
Morrison, a retired truck driver and crane operator, said he received a letter a month later telling him he lives 4,000 feet from the blasting area – well outside the 500-foot radius monitored for blasting damage. But that didn't convince Morrison.
“We were right there when it happened,” he said.
Tracy Long-Jones of Utica also lives outside the blasting zone. She said vibrations and other construction have caused an estimated $25,000 in damage to her driveway and home, including at least 10 cracked windows.
Long-Jones said she attended community meetings before construction began but didn't hear any discussion of pre-blasting surveys for residents living outside the 500-foot area of concern. (Surveys were offered to property owners inside the 500-foot area as a way to measure damage from blasting.)
“I never heard that one time and I went to all those meetings,” she said. “I would have expected them to tell people to get those.”
A few blocks away from Long-Jones's house, Hill wonders why the companies in charge of the blasting don't have to disclose information about the damage claims.
Withholding that information is “absolutely wrong,” he said.
“It has to be full disclosure,” Hill said. “I mean, we're going to pay tolls for that bridge eventually. We've got two billion bucks coming from us to them. They owe us at least that much respect.”