Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Asheville Regional Airport (KAVL) wall work stalled to address erosion, permit

ASHEVILLE – State environmental employees have ordered construction on a failing retaining wall at the Asheville Regional Airport to stop, while Buncombe County officials on Tuesday said that a building permit application was never submitted.

Obtaining the permit would have likely triggered inspections as the work progressed, said Matt Stone, director of the county's permits and inspections office.

"I have no document on file that I can find," Stone said. "They (contractors) have not been able to find a permit at their location."

The airport will still be required to stop erosion from the site and continue the cleanup of sediment that has reached nearby wetlands, state officials said.

Stone met with contractors at the site on Ferncliff Park Drive Tuesday morning, passing by a retaining wall three times the length of a football field and taller than a standard utility pole at its crest.

Blocks of the nearly completed wall — up to four stories tall — began collapsing on the northern end and buckling on the southern end a week ago following rains.

The wall is part of a years-long airport project that includes using coal ash as structural fill to create flat land suitable for construction.

Several coal ash basins are complete, created by wrapping the waste in liners and capping it with six feet of soil.

One of the basins sits about 70 feet behind the wall, and officials said the coal ash was not disturbed. An airport spokeswoman had earlier said coal ash is 400 feet behind the wall, an error she attributed to miscommunication.

Before starting work on the wall, airport officials sought variances from the county and submitted documentation to the Department of Natural Resources as required for erosion and sediment control.

But a standard building permit required for commercial construction projects does not appear to have been filed, Stone said.

Airport spokeswoman Tina Kinsey said officials only learned on Tuesday after a conversation with Stone that they had not applied for the needed document. The Buncombe County Planning Department in March issued a Development Permit in an Area of Special Flood Hazard, Kinsey wrote in a statement, and were told no further steps were required.

Contractors working at the site, including a project engineer with Thalle Construction Co., declined to comment, directing questions to Kinsey.

"Additional information/details will be available when the corrective action plan is completed, expected later this week," she wrote. "The wall is stabilized and additional temporary drainage channels have been created to provide the necessary storm water management."

Stone said construction supervisors must now file for a permit retroactively. The airport has begun that process, Kinsey said. Some disassembly of damaged areas has begun, she said, and certified engineers have inspected the wall throughout the process.

Had Buncombe County inspectors been made aware of the project, they likely would have visited the site before work started and performed periodic inspections, Stone said.

Projects of that scale require an onsite, third-party inspector and his office will review those reports as well as structural and design documents before granting any permit, he said.

Permit cost for the retaining wall would have been based on the value of the project. Fines for unpermitted projects are generally twice the cost of the original permit.

Stone said he did not know the cost of the retaining wall, but as an example said a permit for a project valued at $850,000 to $1 million would cost $8,000.

Kinsey said the cost of the retaining wall is nearly $2.8 million.

No determination has been made about any state regulatory action against the airport, said Crystal Feldmen, a DENR spokeswoman.

But the agency did order all construction work to stop except what was needed to address safety and runoff concerns.

The airport must submit a revised plan to address erosion within 30 days, to be approved by the agency, before work can continue.

"The Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority will be required to address the sediment in the wetlands area and take all necessary measures to stabilize the site and prevent any future erosion," Feldmen said.

Before construction, officials did submit required documents to DENR to comply with sedimentation and stormwater standards.

Though no permit was filed, in October 2013, Michael Reisman, deputy director of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, applied for a variance on the wall with the Buncombe County Board of Adjustment.

County ordinance dictates that retaining walls greater than 20 feet tall must be terraced and landscaped.

A terraced wall would infringe on safety requirements spelled out by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration, Reisman wrote.

"The retaining wall must act as the primary security barrier for the Airport in this location in lieu of security fencing," he wrote in the document. "The Airport is concerned that the terracing requirement for retaining walls above 20 feet tall would aid a person trying to climb the wall for any reason.

Reisman also wrote that slope limitations would require Ferncliff Park Drive to be relocated if the airport has to terrace the wall.


ASHEVILLE – Sediment has washed out of a failing retaining wall at the Asheville Regional Airport and pushed into nearby wetlands, state officials found after inspecting the property Monday.

Airport officials and project engineers also met at the Ferncliff Park Drive site to determine the best approach for making repairs to the wall — about 1/4 mile long and four stories tall at its peak. The wall collapsed at one end and buckled on the other, airport spokeswoman Tina Kinsey wrote in a statement.

"The wall was nearing completion, and the last step in the construction was to replace a temporary storm water system with a permanent system," she wrote. "Before this permanent system was constructed, the heavy rains caused damage to each end of the wall."

"The wall is stable, and the work to fix the damage will begin this week after the detailed corrective plan is finalized," she added. "Most work is expected to take place behind the wall, and the road will not be impacted."

Kinsey released the statement Monday afternoon and said no further information would be immediately available. Buncombe County officials would be responsible for ensuring the wall is safe after repairs are done.

Over the past several years, coal ash from the Duke Energy's nearby Lake Julian plant has been trucked in as structural fill to create flat land suitable for possible future construction or other projects.

A completed coal ash basin behind the wall contains about 2.3 million tons of ash over 45 acres, said Landon Davidson, regional director of water resources for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The industrial waste is wrapped in liners and is under a six-foot cap of soil.

Coal ash was not breached, and several monitoring wells are in the area to gauge any seeping, Davidson said. On the northern end, the coal ash liner is about 70 feet away from the wall, and about 90 feet away on the southern end, he said.

Kinsey previously told the Citizen-Times coal ash was 400 feet away from the wall. She said Monday she would not be able to immediately address the discrepancy.

State environmental officials determined sediment had washed over Ferncliff Park Drive and into wetlands, Davidson said. Contractors told the state they would clean the area.

Officials could not immediately determine how much sediment reached the wetlands.

Davidson said DENR officials would later determine what, if any, kind of regulatory action might be issued.

"Clearly there is some sediment in the wetland area and there's some minor amount of turbid water that's in a conveyance to the (French Broad) River that was put in as an emergency measure to relieve water pressure off the back of the wall," Davidson said.

Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper for the WNC Alliance, said sedimentation did not appear to infiltrate the entire wetland area.

"On one hand you don't want to pollute wetland," he said. "It's a critical habitat for a lot of different things. It doesn't seem very sexy as a polluter, but sediment is the biggest pollution source of the French Broad River."

Carson, who has championed the airport project for getting coal ash into liners and away from the river, said he was concerned about the wall's failure, but also glad to know the coal ash had not been penetrated.

"It's much better than storing it in a hole in the ground at the coal plant where it pollutes groundwater and pollutes the river every day," he said. "It's far and beyond a better option than where it was, where it gets into the river every day."

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