Who’s responsible for Harrisburg sinkholes?

When sinkholes swallow Harrisburg streets or homes, who is responsible?

The answer depends on how sinkholes are formed.

Thursday marked mid-May. With only five months in 2014 there have been just as many sinkholes in the City of Harrisburg.

Each sinkhole has had a particular set of issues attached and each has caused much confusion between not only residents, but officials.

Amidst Harrisburg City’s recovery planning last October, it was announced The Harrisburg Authority would gain control over the city’s water and sewer system. According to the transfer agreement, all treatment costs and management of those pipes would be under the jurisdiction of THA.

As of March, THA officially became Capital Region Water. Ever since the asset transfer, there have been a number of issues CRW has been handling, mainly sinkholes, but the contract between the city and CRW is quite complicated.

Recently, many frustrated residents on S. 14th Street have been ousted for nearly two months following a couple massive sinkholes that opened on the 1400 block. Although CRW has fixed water main breaks and replaced the pipe on the entire block, homes still remain unfit for living.

The city has stepped in, CRW continues to work on the issues, but the liability on this dilemma is still up in the air. On Thursday, abc27 sat down with CRW CEO Shannon Williams. One question asked was who owns the dirt?

“Who owns the dirt? That’s a very good question,” Williams said. “We all do.”

Sound complicated? It is.

Williams pointed to the transfer agreement again, specifically section 2.4 in the 28-page contract. The language basically states that CRW is responsible for all water and sewer liability with one big exception: prior “gross negligence” or “failure to comply with commercially reasonable practices.”

It has been well documented over the years that Harrisburg City moved water and sewer funds to the general fund for various projects, including former Mayor Stephen Reed’s special projects fund to buy wild west and other artifacts.

However, the language is open to interpretation, which is why the city and CRW are still trying to have their respective legal counsel navigate through the agreement.

“There’s just a little transition happening and knowing who’s responsible for what,” Williams said.

As it’s understood now, CRW is responsible for all sinkhole repairs and costs which relate to a water or sewer main break. Preliminarily, a water main break was believed to have caused the sinkhole on Magnolia Street near Bishop A.E. Sullivan’s collapsed church.

As recently as Wednesday, a sinkhole formed at the intersection of Bailey and Balm Streets in Allison Hill. Williams said the city contacted CRW days ago when residents complained of a depression in the road.

Unfortunately, she said CRW previously scheduled a crew for Thursday to send a camera inside to check the void. The sinkhole had other plans. CRW said the crew still went out to see how the sinkhole was formed, and early indications point to a flooded storm drain. Sinkholes caused by storm drains are the responsibility of CRW.

“If it is related to a storm water inlet, that is the authority’s responsibility,” Williams said.

There are some cases in which the home owner or property owner is responsible for sinkholes, like on 4th Street in February, where CRW discovered a sinkhole formed after a gentleman’s private sewer pipe eroded over years. The man’s car partially fell into the street. Williams had to break the news to him that day and inform the home owner he was responsible for costs and repairs.

“Private system is the responsibility of the property owner,” said Williams. “It’s a codes enforcement issue at that point and time, so that’s where the city gets involved.”

Last year, Pennsylvania geological experts showed abc27 a map of the limestone bed that runs right through the midstate. That is the reason why sinkholes often form in Palmyra, Hershey, Lebanon, Lancaster, Harrisburg and Carlisle. When natural sinkholes form in public areas in Harrisburg, the city is responsible.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse announced the city will conduct a geological survey in the area of S. 14th Street, a big reason for the holdup. CRW initially thought a water main break caused a few sinkholes to form on the 1400 block, but crews may have discovered the limestone or soil below the street and homes may have been the ultimate factor.

“Was this a onetime occurrence or is it something that’s going to be happening over time. That’s what the city is trying to figure out right now,” Williams said.

This has already begun a legal discussion between the city and CRW. If the survey proves limestone or natural deficiencies caused the sinkhole issues, including a break in the water main, it could be the responsibility of the city or even home owners. At this time, authoritative bodies are waiting to inform residents until they are properly informed.

But residents should be aware that the city is responsible for all public safety when sinkholes form. Thus far, most are satisfied with police response.

Even though last year’s debacle on 4th Street is still fresh in many minds, this year is different with the transfer of control. CRW said they are committed to providing prompt service. Last year, CRW began GIS mapping and this spring “sewer bots” are trolling the underground infrastructure to detect leaks and voids.

The data collected from both will be available early summer and will allow CRW to pinpoint areas most in need of immediate attention. Until then, the city has suggested property or home owners look into purchasing sinkhole insurance coverage. Last fall, former Mayor Linda Thompson rolled out a discounted sinkhole insurance program for city home owners.

Like any relationship, there is a learning curve. Currently, the relationship between Harrisburg City and CRW has been thrown into the fire and skipped any honeymoon phase. Naturally, both are trying to figure out who owns the dirt.

“We’re trying to work through these bumps and we’re working together as much as possible,” Williams said.

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