Explosive: Airport neighbors claim blast damage

When Donna and Steven DeJong built their house in Walnut Hills eight years ago, their builder offered to come back and repair any damage from settling that occurred during the first year. "We never had one nail pop," says Donna DeJong.

That's not been the case since their neighbor, Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, began blasting away for its runway extension project last fall, and suddenly everything's cracking at the DeJong house: a window, a basement tile, molding, and sheetrock throughout their 5,200-square-foot house.

Their septic field began leaking. So did their neighbor's across the street. A well has gone dry, and cracks have appeared in foundations and walls of another 15 of their neighbors' houses in the Earlysville neighborhood where assessments are likely to be $600K-plus.

On April 2, angry residents wrote CHO executive director Melinda Crawford and demanded that the blasting stop until structural assessments be made and alternatives considered.

"[T]hose with concerns of property damage have been encouraged to file claims in accordance with the contractor's procedures," responded the airport the next day in a press release.

The problem for residents like the DeJongs or the Veneruses was that they'd already contacted the contractor, Maine Drilling and Blasting, which replied that it would not be processing any claims until the blasting was over– which could go into winter or early next spring.

"To say 'we're not going to bother until the blasting is complete' is not an adequate response," claims Supervisor Ann Mallek, who represents the Earlysville neighborhood and who has felt the blasts on her own farm five miles away.

Walnut Hills residents have consulted an attorney and offered media tours of their damaged abodes. Rit Venerus points out vertical cracking in his walls, baseboards coming apart, damage from a leak in the ceiling above the fireplace and its mantle separating from the wall. "These things may look little," he concedes, "but what concerns me is what we can't see."

Part of the problem, he says, is that no pre-blast assessments were made. Residents received a letter from the airport in August that contained no mention of the potential for damage, says Venerus. "They've misled us."

However, CHO's Crawford, who just started the job this year, says last October, Maine Drilling and Blasting hand-delivered flyers that explained the project’s blasting activity and offered the homeowners the opportunity to have a pre-blast assessment of their homes for a nominal fee. "No one elected to do that," says Crawford.

Venerus doesn't remember getting the undated, generic flyer, which doesn't refer to Earlysville or the airport. "One neighbor said they got it," he says. "It wasn't from the airport, and to them at the time, it sounded like a solicitation."

Worse, news articles from Marblehead and Ashland in Massachusetts, and Merrimac, New Hampshire, report similar stories about resident claims of blast damage being denied by Maine Drilling and Blasting. One dates back to 1999.

Maine Drilling's Barbara Barclay, who signed the letters telling Walnut Hills residents no claims would be processed until blasting was complete, did not return phone calls from the Hook.

Crawford calls Maine Drilling and Blasting "a highly reputable and qualified firm with over 47 years of experience," which has been "very responsive to any concerns or complaints which the airport has received."

Says Crawford, "If this airport steps in, we take on the liability from that contractor that we can't afford."

Venerus offers another suggestion: "If they really want to be neighborly, step up and say if Maine Drilling won't make it right, we'll make it right."

To Venerus, the next step is simple– stop blasting so the neighbors can assess the damage. "It's just shocking to me– it almost seems reckless to continue, he says. "It's not being a good neighbor."

But stopping would be costly, says Crawford, ranging from $20,000-$30,000 a day, up to an additional $5 million if the runway fill were trucked in for the $45-million project.

"CHO’s responsibility is to ensure that the project remains in compliance with state and local regulations and that all homeowners’ concerns are addressed in a timely manner," says Crawford. "We continue to encourage anyone with a complaint or concern to file a claim with the subcontractor as originally stated."

Venerus, who is co-chair of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport Commission, an advisory board to the three-man City Council and Board of Supervisors-appointed airport authority, calls the airport's response "callous" and  "disingenuous." Says Venerus, "They haven't done anything to address our concerns."

Everyone who moved to Walnut Hills knew the airport was there, he says. "We didn't know a blasting quarry was going to be here."

On April 4, the Albemarle fire marshal suspended the project's blast permit for one day, says Crawford. No blasting is scheduled for the current week, and it will resume April 15.

As an Earlysville resident, Supervisor Ann Mallek says the airport in the past has been known to "stiff-arm" residents and their concerns. "My message to the airport is, they must step up," she says. "We don't throw our neighbors under the bus."

Looks like the airport will have a chance to get neighborly. According to Venerus, Mallek and Crawford are meeting with Walnut Hills residents April 15– the day the blasting is scheduled to resume.

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The airport should be listed as a "named insured" on the compaines liability policy giving the airport the right to file claims.

If the airport chose to not protect themselves then let the courts have at em.

If the company wants to play hardball then all residents need to do to get the ball rolling is write down the DOT number of any truck they see working the job and complain to the Department of transportaion anything they see or hear that alarms then including squealing brakes, worn tires, scuffed tires, drivers using cell phones, drivers driving errattically etc.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Who builds 600K houses next to an airport? It sucks what the airport is doing, but it is an AIRPORT. Like government, it does not get smaller, better or respond to the needs of the people...just their self interests.

A judge would likely issue an injunction to stop the blasting until some kind f assessment is made. Got to get legal with them.

I was a realtor when "Walnut Hills" (gotta love the unabashed chutzpah of the developer mindset about naming these things) was being developed and at the time was aghast at the idea someone was actually going to turn the old "Happy Valley" farm into a neighborhood of "prestige homes". That turned into amazement when suckers,,,errr customers, started buying those houses. Houses of that type built in Albemarle are usually built in a hurry and foundations are the minimum allowed by code. It's all good as long as you keep water away from the foundations. In that case you get minimal settling, but you always get settling enough to cause cracks in foundations and gaps in woodwork. Unfortunately blasting, especially repetitive blasting, accelerates settling in the same way that vibrating machines settle fresh concrete. Too bad those people are having problems with their houses, but big houses in this market are rarely built any better than a tract house; they're just bigger.
I don't know, but imagine that a big multistate blasting contractor knows all about these things and the ultimate liability would lie with the property owner. The blasting contractor can't control the seismic effects....Oh, yeah, there was an earthquake in August of 2011. My house had a variety of minor cracking issues after that earthquake and I live only 5 miles from the airport. Like everyone else in this area I have no earthquake insurance.hmmmm.

Please come back Gasbag; I miss you...

Seen this story before. Wife is dazzled by granite countertops and fresh paint. Husband loves the square footage. They ignore the obvious until they can't. And then ... lawyers win again.

Charlottesville-Albermalre should have contacted - officially - all of those home owners FIRST, said they were beginning the project and that a PRIVATE Company would be reaching out. I would have NEVER responded to a "flyer" from a blasting company, sounds like it was a cold-call solicitation. Also, to people saying these residents shouldn't have built next to an airport...bull. Blasting like this extends far from "next to" and absolutely can have impacts a good distance. These aren't self-interests, these are people's HOMES and LIVELIHOOD. I'm guessing he who posted that comment has no investment in a home and is probably a transient renter.

(And I don't live in the neighborhood so I'm not vested in this...but its clear this has not been managed well).