Big bang theory: Residents say blasting for critical airport project is damaging properties

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Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport Executive Director Melinda Crawford and Deputy Director Bill Pahuta survey the airport’s blast quarry, which local residents claim is to blame for damage to their houses. Photo: Graelyn Brashear. Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport Executive Director Melinda Crawford and Deputy Director Bill Pahuta survey the airport’s blast quarry, which local residents claim is to blame for damage to their houses. Photo: Graelyn Brashear.

“That’s a beautiful view,” Melanie Crawford said, staring out the windshield of a white pickup truck that had just come to a stop in the red dirt at the end of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport runway.

She wasn’t looking at the Blue Ridge in the distance, but at the earth-moving activity in front of her. Crawford, the airport’s new executive director, was taking time out of a busy Thursday morning to observe the final stages of a project that’s been in the works for a decade but has now come under fire from neighbors: the long-awaited expansion of the airport’s runway.

At issue is the use of rock blasting on airport property. Authorities say it’s safe and necessary to generate needed fill material and keep costs down, but nearby residents claim the repeated explosions are damaging their homes, and want a moratorium on the explosions so they can take stock.

But the evidence isn’t there, said Crawford, and that means the airport must continue, or face serious financial repercussions. When it comes to such complaints, “you cannot stop a project without substantiated proof, and there is none,” she said.

The $45 million expansion project is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Virginia Department of Aviation, and the Airport Authority itself, which is governed locally but operates independently of Charlottesville and Albemarle. The work is about 85 percent complete, and if there’s a sense of urgency in the home stretch, that’s because officials see it as vital to the airport’s survival.

At a relatively short 6,001′, CHO’s runway didn’t have the length needed to allow the 50-seat jets that are the backbone of regional carrier service to take off at full capacity. In an era of shrinking airline profit margins, the airport had to take a big step to stay relevant, said Crawford.

By the time it’s done, the project will have used 2.2 million cubic yards of rock and dirt —enough to fill more than 1,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools—to build up the ground underneath the extension. By far the cheapest way for the airport to acquire all that rubble was to blast it out of an old borrow site on the property.

Since then, subcontractor Maine Drilling & Blasting, brought in by engineering firm Sargent, has been overseeing explosions three or four times a week. It’s a big job—much bigger than the residents of nearby Walnut Hill realized, said Rit Venerus. He lives in the pricey neighborhood, where homes worth half a million or more back up to airport property, and he serves as chair of the Joint Airport Commission, a citizens group that advises the Airport Authority.

“They didn’t tell us that they were basically building a rock blasting quarry in our backyard,” Venerus said.

The only notice from the airport was an August letter in their newspaper boxes informing them that blasting would soon begin. MD&B sent out a separate letter telling residents they could pay for a survey of their homes before blasting began, but Venerus said not all homeowners received it, and because it didn’t mention the airport project specifically, many people thought it was a solicitation and ignored it.

By December, Venerus and his wife Barbara saw the first hairline cracks appear in their 8-year-old drywall. Then they started finding more damage—splitting baseboard molding, fractures in their concrete foundation, their fireplace mantel separating slowly from the wall—and learned they weren’t alone. A neighbor’s well went dry. A tile floor sprouted a zig-zag fracture. Fissures crept through sheetrock.

In March, eight households submitted claims to MD&B, and the company sent a representative to their homes to document the alleged damage. They got back letters with nearly identical wording: The company “has made the decision to hold off on processing any claims until our blasting is over.”

Venerus said he and his neighbors feel stuck. They worry about damage they can’t see, and about coming out the loser in a battle between insurance companies. “We don’t want our rates to go up, or the company to cancel coverage,” he said.

On April 2, more than 20 frustrated Walnut Hill residents signed their names to a letter calling on the Authority to halt blasting so they could assess the damage. Maine Drilling & Blasting didn’t return requests for comment, and Airport Authority chair Bill Kehoe referred calls to Crawford, who has remained politely firm: Blasting will go on.

“If we stop the project, we’re looking at $20,000 to $30,000 a day in expenses,” she said, maybe through the fall. The alternative is trucking in the fill, which would drive costs up by $5 million. And the airport would be on the hook.

“If there’s not a reason—if we just arbitrarily shut it down—then we’re responsible, and we have to take that on,” she said. Neither the FAA nor the Virginia Department of Aviation would cover the costs of pulling the plug, she said.

Crawford said that since the issues have surfaced, the airport and subcontractor have tried to address residents’ concerns, and seismographs set up all over the area have shown blast impacts are below allowable levels.

Albemarle County Fire Marshal Howard Lagomarsino backed her up. His office is in charge of issuing blast permits in the county, and after suspending activity briefly on April 4 to investigate, he found ground vibrations were within safe and legal thresholds.

“They’re doing everything that the code says they’re supposed to,” said Lagomarsino, which means he’s required to give them the nod. “Anything beyond that is a civil matter between [residents] and the blaster.”

Ann Mallek, who represents Earlysville on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, is also keeping a close eye on the project. “I was concerned that they wanted to finish the job before getting involved in the claim,” she said of the subcontractor, but she’s been reassured that “the books won’t be closed on this until they’re absolutely certain everything is O.K.”

The airport hasn’t always been a good neighbor, she said, but in this case, they’re trying. Blasting begins again this week, along with a renewed effort by the Authority to mend fences, starting with a Monday meeting between airport officials and Walnut Hill residents.

Venerus isn’t feeling the love. If the Authority was serious about protecting local property, it would have ordered a thorough study of the potential impacts before the project began, he said, and they’d step up now and promise to take responsibility for damage.

“Nobody has said, ‘If there’s really a concern here, we’ll do an assessment, and if there’s a change between now and the end of the blasting, then we can talk,’” he said. “Nobody’s talking. Everyone’s hanging their hat on the fact that it’s ‘within safe limits.’”

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