Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Arkansas Times analyzes Beebe's failure to lead Arkansas to a greener future

Burning issues

From proposed coal plants to water pollution to fallout from gas exploration, it’s been a contentious year for environmental politics.


In October of 2008, the Times reported on the burgeoning natural gas industry and the pollution and waste disposal problems that came with the boom. Since then, a lot has happened. Some of it positive, most negative.

Gov. Mike Beebe, depending on who you ask, has been either a strong advocate for the environment or an enemy. The legislature seems indifferent at best and the regulatory system is strongly influenced if not controlled by the utilities and industries it seeks to regulate. Some positive steps have been made, but the question remains, how natural is the Natural State?

The 2009 legislative session wasn't a great one for the environment. There were attempts to help state agencies regulate the natural gas industry, although most say the efforts weren't nearly enough to make a difference. One legislator tried to repeal a 1977 act requiring utility companies to institute energy efficiency programs. And utilities defeated a bill that would have expanded energy efficiency programs that already exist.

During that same time period, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission (PC&E) has, to the dismay of clean water advocates, failed to enact a regulation to keep the surface discharge of sewage out of the Lake Maumelle watershed, a source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people. Commissioners have been reluctant to take action on Lake Maumelle because they fear it would set a state-wide precedent for something they see as a local issue, even though the watershed spans three counties: Pulaski, Saline and Perry. Officials at Central Arkansas Water are confident they can get the votes needed if they can show why Lake Maumelle is unique and why it should be protected.

The PC&E commission also issued a highly contested permit for what environmentalists think will likely be the “last old-fashioned coal-fired power plant” built in the United States, the John W. Turk plant in Hempstead County. The permit for the Turk plant has been overturned by the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The Arkansas Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal of that ruling on April 15.

The commission has drawn criticism in the past for being a little too close to the polluters they're supposed to protect the environment from. One former commissioner, Thomas Schueck, famously voted on a waiver to allow construction on the Turk plant to continue even though he had ties to two contractors with a significant financial interest in the plant's construction.

That's not to say that no progress has been made. On the regulatory front, the legislature did give the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) the funds to hire four additional inspectors to keep up with gas drilling operations, although the agency has yet to receive the money. The money is being held up in a lawsuit over how the state Game and Fish Commission should spend money from gas lease agreements.

In another positive move, ADEQ was also able to shut down some of the state's most egregiously out-of-compliance drilling waste disposal facilities, known as landfarms because drilling waste is applied to the soil. Along with these minor victories, others take comfort in the steps made by Gov. Beebe to bring wind-related industries to the state and think those will pay big dividends in the future.

Despite small advances, though, many think that when it comes to the environment, Arkansas could be doing much better.

While ADEQ was able to crack down on some landfarms, other gas drilling-related issues have yet to be addressed. Just two weeks ago, a family in Bee Branch complained that trucks were dumping drilling waste on the road leading to their house.

Others claim that fracking, a horizontal gas-drilling process, has ruined their water wells. Noise from active rigs, and related service industries, continues to negatively impact some families and eminent domain battles with pipeline companies linger in county courts.

Glen Hooks is the regional director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Arkansas. He's been working on environmental causes in the state for years, and says the only thing that's likely to spur significant change is strong leadership from state legislators and the governor's office.

“We could do a lot better environmentally in Arkansas if we had significant leadership at the top, because that encourages the regulatory agencies to do what they need to do,” Hooks says.

“You know how state government is. A lot of the time, it's all about notsticking your neck out too far. Well, the way to cure that is if your boss and the higher-ups stick their necks out a bit. Then it's safe for you to do it and you can start to look for better ways to do things. I want to see more necks sticking out.”

Beebe's done that a couple of times, Hooks admits. He gives the governor high marks for establishing the Governor's Commission on Global Warming ― even though Arkansas was one of the last states to create such a commission. But Hooks wouldn't be a good environmental activist if he didn't think the governor could be doing more.

“No one has more political will than Mike Beebe,” Hooks says. “When he wants something done it gets done, whether it's cutting the grocery tax, or any number of things. If it's on the governor's package, it's going to happen. If he wanted to make it a priority to stop coal plants, we could get it done. If he wanted to increase our energy efficiency, we could get it done. If he wanted to really push our delegation to support a climate bill or stricter standards on ozone, we could get it done.”

Others on Hooks' side of the fence agree. Kate Althoff has spent the last few years making sure that future development in the Lake Maumelle watershed won't have too great an impact on water quality.

“Governor Beebe has played it safe,” she says. “We want him to stop playing on the fence so much and become bolder. One area where he came up short was allowing gas drilling in the natural reserves. That was handled very poorly. At the very minimum, environmental groups should have been brought into the room for a discussion about possible concerns.”

But hindsight, says Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Beebe, is a very powerful thing. He defended the governor's record and says the administration always has an eye toward new developments in the Fayetteville Shale.

“When it all started, this was something that was very new for Arkansas. ADEQ has done an admirable job with the tools they've had. There's been exploration in other states and we've tried to learn from that. We've adapted as time has gone on,” DeCample says.

One area where Beebe has excelled, Hooks says, is in recruiting wind industry jobs to Arkansas.

“He's an economically minded governor, a jobs-minded governor,” Hooks says. “The environment's not his number one, go-to issue I think it's fair to say. But he's done a really good job of attracting green manufacturing jobs. I think there are three wind turbine and wind blade manufacturers either here or on the way. It illustrates something that we've been saying for a long time and that's the future of jobs in Arkansas are clean energy jobs like this.”

Eddy Moore knows a thing or two about green jobs. He's the coordinator for Arkansas Business Leaders for a Clean Energy Economy, and a regulatory policy wonk. He says Gov. Beebe has shown a considerable amount of foresight.

“The governor didn't go out and recruit three of the biggest wind turbine and blade manufacturers in the world to come to Arkansas because he's a fringe climate nut. He did that to employ people in a growing industry,” Moore says.

When you talk about environmental policies, there's always tension between the business community and environmental activists, but Moore thinks will be relieved when the economic benefits of energy efficiency become clear.

“Climate change is probably the biggest issue in the environmental community right now, but all the things I'm talking about are true even if there isn't climate change. I'm not saying it's irrelevant, but it's not necessary when you're talking about making your electricity and gas services cheaper by making your buildings more efficient. We would want to do these things even if the world were getting colder.”

Aside from stronger leadership from the governor, there are other things standing in the way to real improvement. And asking state lawmakers to “stick their neck out” on the environment might be a little too much to ask, especially in a state where many of them don't really believe climate change is real.

One of them, at least, does. Rep. Kathy Webb (D-Little Rock) sat on the Governor's Commission on Global Warming and was instrumental in getting some of the commission's recommendations passed. She also worked with the Citizens First Congress, an advocacy group that aggressively pursued a progressive environmental agenda in the legislative session last year. She says there are three basic hurdles in the legislature that have to be overcome to pass meaningful environmental policies.

“The first one is that the utilities are very powerful,” Webb says. “The state chamber of commerce is very powerful and when they're out there in force saying energy efficiency is going to cost more, it's very difficult to get our message through.”

“Second, I think that there are some very loud voices who dispute the science of climate change and that is something that we deal with. The third impediment is the economy. When it went down the tank, our issues weren't on the back burner, they weren't even on the stove.”

Getting those issues on the front burner is something Webb will continue to work for, but in the face of utility companies that are resistant to change, major progress on energy efficiency will likely meet the same fate it did in the 2009 session.

Under current law, utilities are required by the Public Service Commission to come up with energy efficiency programs, which can range from weatherizing inefficient homes and businesses to offering discounts on certain types of light bulbs. One of the bills that came out of the Governor's Commission on Global Warming was an attempt to make those programs more stringent.

The utilities, as you might imagine, weren't thrilled. And it's easy to see why. If your business is selling power, selling less power hurts your bottom line.

“The energy efficiency bill died in committee,” Webb says, “even though we met with utilities, the manufacturing sector and the state chamber multiple times to try to compromise. They wanted absolutely nothing.”

Moore worked with Webb and the utilities during the session to try to find some kind of common ground on the measure.
“Utilities were against energy efficiency bills. And one of the reasons for that was because the whole current system of regulation means they're dependent on selling more and more kilowatt hours,” Moore says.

But that's a system he thinks might change in the future. The PSC is currently looking at ways to change the way customers pay for electricity, a process that could have a huge impact on how much energy Arkansans can save.

“The way it is now, the company loses when you use less power,” he says. “We need to shift to a system where your electricity bill isn't paid based on how much you use, but on a service you get from the utility ― that service being power and the ability to use it at a set cost. Once we figure out what that cost will be, the utilities become more or less indifferent to the amount of power you use and can become more involved in helping you reduce it.”

Moore says there is still a “long way to go” before a new regulatory structure is in place, but he thinks the utilities are making a good faith effort to explore new ways of looking at how rates are structured.

Although efforts to expand energy efficiency programs failed, the session wasn't a total loss. The General Assembly did pass some of the commission's recommendations including a law that would increase efficiency in schools and government buildings. A bill to provide tax credits to encourage the recovery of landfill methane gas is under interim study.

“I'm proud of the work the commission did,” Webb says. “I thought we were going to be able to compromise on some things, but the chamber sent out emails telling people that the sky was falling. It was kind of like David and Goliath, and David just doesn't have the resources.”

And that's always been a problem, Althoff says. Concerned citizens and environmental groups will always be at a disadvantage.

“It all comes down to money,” she says. “Gas companies, utilities ― they have professionals who know public relations, they have the money to hire them and they can dedicate resources to long-term planning. A regular person doesn't have a PR department or that strategic outlook that the other side has.”

But even though the outlook may be somewhat bleak, Hooks says there are some bright spots.

“There are some really good people at ADEQ and at the PSC. I think [ADEQ director] Teresa Marks has a passion for protecting the environment. I think [PSC chairman] Paul Suskie has a very bright and curious mind when it comes to alternative energy sources. I just wish they would be a little more proactive on some of the air issues like the Turk coal plant, and try to stop environmental problems before they actually become problems.”

And that's been one major criticism of ADEQ for some time, that the department simply hasn't done enough to protect the environment. But, as even Hooks will tell you, it's hard to fault ADEQ. The agency has a very limited number of inspectors and there are literally thousands of permitted facilities throughout the state. As a result, industries end up regulating themselves and that has environmental groups worried.

“We depend on self-sampling in a lot of industries because of the reality of resources,” Marks says. “We just have to depend on that because it's a reality when you're dealing with the number of facilities that we have and that's common across the country. Every state depends on facilities to do a lot of their own sampling.”

“It's almost like we perpetuate problems here,” Hooks says. “We pass environmental laws or standards but then we don't equip the agencies to monitor those things. I'm not a fan of self-regulation. We don't let the foxes watch the hen house, so we shouldn't let polluters regulate themselves because they have an incentive to not follow the rules.”

Once natural gas exploration exploded and the fight over the Turk coal plant escalated, many on the environmental side thought ADEQ should be taking a more active role in protecting the state from possible pollution and public health issues. But Marks says the agency is constrained by the law.

‘We can only act within the authority that's given to us by the legislature and the PC&E commission, and the federal government. Our authority is limited to current laws and regulations. I'm not aware of any state that has outlawed coal plants. Arkansas has not, so they're a legal industry at this point and we drafted a permit that we think is probably one of the best permits that's been issued to a coal plant in the nation.”

With a conservative legislature at work, the laws that ADEQ is required to enforce will always be farther to the right than your average environmentalists may want. But ADEQ can initiate regulations for the PC&E commission to enforce. It just takes awhile. Proposed regulations have to go through a public comment period, multiple hearings and legislative review.
Because there are so many impediments at the state level, Webb says significant action on climate change and other environmental issues will likely require federal legislation.

“The CEOs of the big utilities think climate change is real and they would prefer action on the federal level. So some of the same companies that are fighting us on the local level are working at the federal level to get the Waxman-Markey [cap and trade] bill passed,” Webb says.

Looking forward, environmental progress in Arkansas is possible, but it will likely require two things: public engagement and major investments in clean-energy industries.

“We're at a turning point and I feel like we've been there for a year and maybe will be for a year to come,” Althoff says. “And what I'm seeing is a broad environmental crisis in Arkansas. One positive is that we're seeing some increased response coming from the citizens. There are more environmental groups and people are getting engaged but they're not communicating among themselves very well. They need to continue to become more organized.”

Moore has a different view. Although he realizes the importance of environmental activism, he thinks businesses and economic interests will ultimately lead the way.

“The environmental groups raise some awareness and it's easier for them to access information and organize now. But I think the bigger change comes when the mainstream players with resources start investing. LM Glasfiber invested $100 million in its Little Rock facility. You could add up all the funding for environmental activism here since Arkansas became a state and it wouldn't be close to $100 million.”

And the governor's office seems to realize that. DeCample says Beebe will continue to push for energy efficiency and green jobs.

“We've taken some steps as far as trying to work within state government for more green practices and pushing for energy efficiency. As the technology continues to improve and the fiscal benefits emerge, you're seeing more and more that business ‘going green' is becoming not just accepted but normal and that's an area where we are happy to be leading,” DeCample says.

While Arkansas might not be the most progressive state in terms of environmental policies, we do have something that not a lot of other states have: both natural resources and intellectual capital.

“We're not doing everything we need to do but we are going in the right direction and poised to do well,” Moore says. “We start out with good resources. If you just look at it, Arkansas is a reasonable wind resource, we have tons of natural gas and, given our location, we're next to the Saudi Arabia of wind.”

“We've also got great universities and some companies that are doing some really interesting things like making solar cells more efficient and ethanol production. We need buildings of people who are experts in how you get the most out of every kilowatt. Not just because it will save the environment, but because it will make the economy much more competitive. But the fact remains, if we don't, as a state, promote clean energy here, they will move somewhere else.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

SAVE the PIKA, says National Wildlife Federation

Please click on header to ENLARGE and go to NWF Web site.

The time to protect the pika is NOW

Dear Aubrey,

They're not as recognizable as the magnificent polar bear, but the adorable American pika needs your help just as much. And if friends like you don’t speak up now for animals big and small, they might not be around for future generations to enjoy.

Global warming is melting snowpack and increasing temperatures on the mountain top home of the pika—an adorable cousin of the rabbit—making more of its dwindling habitat inhospitable. That’s why the time to protect the pika is now, before the obstacles they face become insurmountable.

Please help protect the pika before it’s too late.

The pika is uniquely suited to live in cold mountainous conditions and can die if forced to endure extended exposure to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees. In fact, some lower level populations have already disappeared. As temperatures continue to rise, where will these adorable animals go once they reach the mountain top?

I know you care about protecting all wildlife, large and small. From the 1,400 pound polar bear to the tiny 5 ounce pika, we need to ensure we safeguard America’s great wildlife heritage for our children and grandchildren. Please, help National Wildlife Federation protect the pika and so many other imperiled species today.

Anne Senft signature
Anne Senft
Vice President, Membership

*While supplies last. Substitutions may apply. Please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Arkansas Highway Department plan to stop flow of sediment to Mulberry River from Pig Trail repair site will cost $1.6 million

Please click on byline of Adam Wallworth to go to newspaper online and view full story and previous stories on the pollution of Mountain Creek and the Mulberry River.
See video by Tom Shuessler below.  Click on video to find high-definition view on You Tube. Also, watch CAT 18 on Cox Cable at 11 a.m.,  5 p.m. and 11 p.m. today for Schuessler's short slide show and description of what has been happening in recent weeks at the highway construction site on the Pig Trail (Arkansas 23). Programs on CAT also may be viewed simulcast online at
at 11 a.m.,  5 p.m. and 11 p.m. today. Click on WATCH ONLINE near right top corner of page.

Highway agency works to stem sediment flow into stream

 — State highway officials have begun work on a $1.6 million plan to stop the flow of sediment from an Arkansas 23 construction project into a Mulberry River tributary as state and federal environmental regulators consider penalties for the pollution.
“Even if they were to completely be able to remediate the site right now, that still doesn’t necessarily resolve any possible penalty,” said Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the Arkansas Departmentof Environmental Quality.
Benefield said the department will continue its enforcement action against the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department while it reviews a mitigation plan that the agency submitted Wednesday.
The plan comes in response to reports by environmental inspector Jeff Tyler, who detailed runoff problems that caused sediment to flow into a tributary of Mountain Creek half a mile downhill from the Arkansas 23 construction site.
Tyler began monitoring the site after a resident about 5 miles downstream complained about sediment in Mountain Creek, which feeds the Mulberry River.
Heavy rains caused the collapse of a 1, 200-foot section of Arkansas 23, a 19-mile stretch also known as the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, in March 2008. A second collapse prompted the state to close the road in December after repair work had begun.
The Highway Department approved a $1.6 million change order to address runoff problems Wednesday.
Most of the mitigation cost - $1.3 million - stems from removing dirt and rocks from the roadbed and alongside Arkansas 23 where contractor Kesser International is rebuilding the road, said Randy Ort, Highway Department spokesman.
That waste material had been leveled, seeded and mulched, but then heavy rain caused it to start sliding, according to officials.
Kesser International has already started building a gravel road to accommodate the heavy equipment needed to remove the material, Ort said.
The flow of underground water that caused the road to collapse in the first place is causing the sediment-runoff problem, Ort said.
Repairs are intended to stabilize the hillside, but there is no guarantee there won’t be another slide.
“It’s going to happen again, maybe not here, but up there again,” Ort said. “We’ve had slides all over north Arkansas, but most don’t impair roadways.”
The mitigation plan also calls for digging a trench along the base of the roadway to direct rainwater into two natural channels, Ort said. The channels will be lined with rock, he said.
The hillside will be seeded and mulched, but until that vegetation takes hold, wattles will be used to control surface runoff. Wattles are similar to sandbags and are used to stop sediment while still allowing water to flow through.
Benefield said he expects his staff to submit a draft consent administrative order next week to outline steps the Highway Department and Kesser International need to take to fix the problem.
At a minimum, the order will require the Highway Department to implement its plan as submitted, Benefield said. The order could include additional remediation steps and a fine.
Biologists have said sediment 2- to 10-inches deep has choked out aquatic life in the tributary and in Mountain Creek, although the pollution dissipates quickly in the Mulberry River.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also pursuing enforcement action against the Highway Department and was expected to send a notice late Thursday or today, said Kyle Clark, chief of its enforcement branch and regulatory division.
Clark said the Highway Department will have 14 days to respond, but the Corps will likely accept any plan approved by the state environmental department.
State Sen. Ruth Whitaker, R-Cedarville, said she is waiting to hear back from Teresa Marks, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, and will continue to monitor the project. Whitaker questioned Highway Department officials about the runoff problem during the Legislature’s recent fiscal session.
Benefield said the consent administrative order will provide a legal framework to ensure that the Highway Department follows through with its plan and takes any needed future action. He said he expects the department to continue to cooperate.
Benefield couldn’t say whether the Highway Department has been subject to a consent administrative order before.
“I think it is fair to say it is uncommon, given the amount of work performed by the Highway Department,” he said.
Highway officials don’t plan to remove a portion of the spoil material that broke loose and slid into the tributary of Mountain Creek. Biologists have said removing that material could do more harm than good.
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 03/26/2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Restore clean-water act to original strength Now!

Please double-click "view as webpage" link near top right to see full post.

RiverAlert Header
March 22, 2010
keep our nation's waters are protected under the Clean Water Act
Take Action 
Dear Aubrey,
If you think the Clean Water Act protects your drinking water from pollution, think again. Please take action today to ensure fundamental safeguards for clean water in our streams, rivers, and lakes.
A confusing 2006 Supreme Court decision on the Clean Water Act has left the fate of 60 percent of the nation’s stream miles -– that provide drinking water for 117 million Americans –- in legal limbo. As a result, as reported in The New York Times, polluters are now claiming complete exemptions from reporting what they dump into local streams.
Congress can resolve this problem by passing legislation to restore full federal protection for all our waters. Help us ensure that all of our nation’s waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. Urge your representative to support introducing and passing the Clean Water Restoration Act today.
Thank you for your support.
Katherine Baer Signature
Katherine Baer
Senior Director, Clean Water Program

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American Rivers ©2010

I would like to express grave concern over the loss of protection for many of our small streams that provide clean drinking water for 117 million Americans in communities across the country. Supreme Court decisions in the Rapanos and Carabell cases have made it confusing and burdensome for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect small streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

As a result, enforcement actions against polluters have declined sharply the EPA estimates that over 1,000 cases have been shelved or dropped altogether. More recently it has become clear that some polluters are using the decisions as a justification to avoid any permitting and reporting requirements for discharging pollutants into our waters.

For the Clean Water Act to fulfill its goal of restoring the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters, all waters must receive protection corresponding with Congress' original intent when passing this landmark law. Upstream waters must be protected from pollution and destruction if we expect downstream waters to be fit for swimming, drinking, and fish and wildlife, and downstream communities to be safe from flooding.

I urge you to act in the interest of preserving clean water for healthy communities and wildlife. Please support introduction and passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would clarify the definition of waters to eliminate uncertainty and ensure clean water in accordance with the goals of the Clean Water Act.

Thank you for your consideration.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

John Pennington requests help planting trees in several watershed spots

JOHN PENNINGTON OF THE Washington County Cooperative Extension Service and who is a member of our Land Use Planning and Green Infrastructuare Committee,  HAS ASKED FOR VOLUNTEER HELP ON CLEAR CREEK:
Here's what John says: 
"....... there are quite a few landowners with large  
streamfront property acreage who are voluntarily implementing  some  
very large riparian buffers during the weeks of

March 15 -19 and  22-26.

I was wondering if any of you and some of your membership base would  
be interested in helping me plant the trees along with these  
landownners in either an "all-star approach" (a few people from a  
few organizations per site - per day) or in an individual  
organizational approach (one organization per site- per day).

I figure this is a great way for your organizations to not only  
achieve a tiny smidge of your missions, make meaningful landowner  
contacts, and  increase membership, but to also help me out during a  
time when I need some help from you or your organization."

Please contact John at:   479-444-1770   or
if you can help out with this very important work.  


To: "Contact IRWP" <>
Subject: PLANT SEEDLINGS IN 2010: IRWP Riparian Project March 13, 2010

Join us in planting 3,000 seedlings at one of the six locations in the 2010 Illinois River Watershed Partnership Riparian Project!  

Forward this message to a friend
Saturday, March 13
9 am to  12 noon
What is a riparian buffer?
A riparian buffer is the area of land next to a creek, stream, or river - the streambanks and floodplain area.  In nature, riparian buffers can include trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers. 
Why are riparian buffers important?
Riparian buffers decrease streambank erosion, filter sediments and pollutants commonly found in runoff, provide stormwater storage, increase wildlife habitat, provide cooler water and air temperatures, and increase groundwater infiltration.  Riparian buffers provide environmental and recreational benefits to creeks, streams, and rivers, and improve water quality and downstream land areas.
How can YOU participate?
You are invited to volunteer at one of the six locations listed below. Activities will include planting green ash, bald cypress, and shortleaf pine seedlings as well as cleaning up trash and debris. Snacks and drinks will be provided.
To volunteer email or call (479) 238-4671
Fayetteville – Clabber Creek meet at Holt Middle School, Rupple Rd
Gentry – Little Flint Creek meet at Eagle Watch Nature Trail, Hwy 12 West
Rogers – Turtle Creek meet at Home Depot northwest parking lot, I-540 Pinnacle exit
Siloam Springs – Sager Creek meet at La-Z-Boy Ballpark fields
Springdale – Spring Creek meet at Grove Street Park
Tahlequah – Townbranch meet at Felts Park, Basin Ave
Partners: Cities of Fayetteville, Gentry, Rogers, Springdale, Siloam Springs, Tahlequah, Arkansas Forestry Commission, Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission,
 Wal-Mart Stores, Sam’s Club, Chick-Fil-A, Snapple, Simmons Foods, Tyson Foods, George’s Inc, Arkansas Farm Bureau, The Nature Conservancy,  Lake Fayetteville Watershed Partnership, UA Ecological Engineering Society
Sager Creek Advisory Commission, Razorback District Boy Scouts, 4-H Clubs

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shifting foundations a widespread problem

March 3, 2010
Shifting Soil Threatens Homes’ Foundations
STEVEN DERSE, the owner of a corporate travel business in Nashville, cannot feel his house move, but he can hear it. “It’s an eerie creaking sound,” he said, and it echoes throughout his two-story Georgian-style house.

It started two years ago when a severe drought contracted the soil beneath the foundation, which caused it to crack and sink, pulling the house down with it. The noise has continued intermittently, becoming more insistent last year when flooding pushed the already compromised foundation and house back upward.

This seesawing effect was noisy and expensive. Mr. Derse has spent more than $10,000 to install subterranean piers to stabilize his foundation, and he expects he will have to install more to prevent further cracking and crumbling. “You lose your sense of security,” he said. “You love your home and then it literally turns on you.”

His is not the only house buffeted by shifting soil. Extreme weather possibly linked to climate change, as well as construction on less stable ground, have provoked unprecedented foundation failures in houses nationwide. Foundation repair companies report a doubling and tripling of their business in the last two decades with no let-up even during the recession

“We’ve seen a tremendous influx of pretty severe cases due to either drought or too much rain,” said Dan Jaggers, vice president of technical services at Olshan Foundation Repair, which has offices in the South, Midwest and Great Plains. “People call panicked because they’ve got gaping cracks in their walls, tile breaking, grout popping and they don’t know what to do.” Other telltale signs of foundation failure include doors and windows that will not close, chimneys or porches separating from the house and bowing basement walls.

After a particularly dry summer followed by deluges in the fall, Psonya Wilson, a lawyer in Brandon, Miss., noticed light streaming in where the wall had separated from the baseboard in the bedroom of her 5-year-old son. “I could stick my finger through it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. The whole back part of the house had sunk about six inches.” To stop further collapse, not to mention to control the draft, she is having several stabilization piers installed to shore up the foundation of her two-story garden style house; it will cost more than $5,000.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association indicates that since the 1990s there has been an accelerating trend nationwide toward more extended dry periods followed by downpours. Whether due to random climate patterns or global warming, the swings between hot and dry weather and severe rain or snow have profoundly affected soil underneath buildings.

Clay soils, like those beneath the houses of Mr. Derse and Ms. Wilson, shrink during droughts and swell during floods, causing structures to bob. And because sandier soil loses its adhesive properties in dry conditions, it pulls away from foundations. Heavy rains cause it to shift or just collapse beneath structures. With both kinds of soil, such sinking, called subsidence, usually happens gradually, said Randall Orndorff, a geologist with the United States Geologic Survey. But, he said, “swinging from very wet to extremely dry weather like we’ve been seeing lately in many parts of the country may be accelerating the effect.”

Experts estimate the cost to homeowners to stabilize or shore up foundations is around $4 billion annually, up from $3 billion 10 years ago, although more houses have also been built in that time period. Subsidence is not covered by most homeowners’ insurance policies in the United States, unlike in Britain, where the increasing number of homeowners’ claims due to foundation failure prompted the Charter Insurance Institute, an industry trade group, to issue a dire warning about the financial drain in its 2009 report, “Coping with Climate Change: Risks and Opportunities for Insurers.”

“The question we need to ask is, are we building to cope with the enhanced weather events related to climate change,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group advocating science-based solutions to environmental and health issues. “It’s obvious that we need to look at changing building codes worldwide to deal with this.”

Compounding the problem is that, during the recent housing boom in the United States, houses were built in areas where the soil was particularly prone to shift. “If you think about it, the best ground in cities is usually taken early on, so the builders and developers have often been expanding into less desirable areas, and in their rush to make money, may not have designed structures to deal with it,” said David Lourie, a geotechnical engineer in New Orleans.

Lawyers who specialize in foundation failure cases say states usually have an 8- to 10-year statute of limitations following completion of a house for homeowners to seek relief for inadequate construction given the soil conditions.

Mr. Derse’s house was built in 1992 and Ms. Wilson’s in 1995 so they were out of luck. But Travis Fonseca, a sales manager at a biotech company, was able to sue the builder of his house in Aurora, Colo. The house was built in 2000; shortly thereafter the foundation developed cracks that worsened as the soil shifted through the seasons. “We sued in 2005 and finally settled last year,” he said. “It’s been an ordeal, and what we got is not enough to fix it but we’re better off than we were.”

“Builders can’t say, ‘Oh, look, it’s an act of God,’ and they aren’t responsible if the foundation fails,” said his attorney, Scott Sullan with Sullan, Sandgrund, Smith & Perczak in Denver. “They know how to build on these soils no matter what the weather. They’ve got geotechnical engineers to tell them.”

Fixing a failed foundation usually involves hiring a foundation repair company to install cement or steel piers around the perimeter of the house’s slab or near its existing piers if it is a pier and beam foundation. Once in place, hydraulic jacks lift and level the house and transfer its weight to the new supports. The cost depends on the severity of the problem but generally runs about $1,000 to $2,000 per pier, which should include a lifetime transferable warranty.

“It’s amazing to watch your house get jacked up like that,” said Miguel Rivera, a designer of heating and air-conditioning systems, who had to pay $13,000 to have his 60-year-old house in West Orange, N.J., shored up in January. “It’s just immediate. You’re like, whoa, up it goes.”

His dining room began separating from the rest of his house about five years ago after repeated heavy rains shifted the earth beneath it. The problem was made worse when he removed a nearby tree, which was probably siphoning off excess water and providing structure to the soil beneath his house.

“It often happens that you upset the moisture and structural balance when you knock down or tear out trees,” said Mr. Lourie, the geotechnical engineer, adding that planting trees too close to the house can be harmful. “Plant them at least half their mature height away from the house.”

Landscaping should, as a rule, be installed so that water slopes away from the house and gutters should discharge at least five feet from the house to avoid oversaturating the soil. During droughts, experts recommend placing soaker hoses around the perimeter of the house and turning them on for 30 minutes a day. “The idea is to maintain a constant amount of moisture in the soil,” said Tom Witherspoon, a foundation engineer in Dallas. “If you can do that, your house will never move.”

Don't Wait For Creaking

Engineering and structural-repair professionals say it is relatively easy to spot foundation problems in structures that are more than 10 years old. If you are considering buying a house, look for patched-over cracks in brick or drywall and doors that have been planed. Also notice if there are cracks in sidewalks and streets in the neighborhood.

In newer developments, it’s harder to know if the homes will withstand a shift in soil. Therefore, it might be a good idea to have a geotechnical engineer do an inspection — in addition to having a normal home inspection — before you buy. Home inspectors may not have the expertise to assess soil conditions. (Licensed professionals can be found at the Web site of the Associated Soil and Foundation Engineers,

This is especially important if you are considering buying a home in problematic areas like the Southeast, Southwest, Midwest and coastal states.

“My home inspector said my house had no problems,” said Steven Derse, who bought his house in Nashville in 2002. “Then it started to move and fell apart like a cracker box.”