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PA Sinkhole Indicates Infrastructure Problems

Thursday, November 7, 2019

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Last Monday (Oct. 28) morning, a sinkhole roughly 100 feet long and 20 feet deep opened up on 10th Street in Downtown Pittsburgh. However, when the sinkhole presented itself, a Pittsburgh Port Authority G31 bus was on top of the roadway, which caused the bus to partially sink with it.

Reports indicate that only two individuals were on the bus—the bus driver, who was unharmed, and a single passenger, who was treated for minor injuries.

What kept the bus from continuing its backward journey into the sinkhole was its back end, which, after causing a water main break in its fall, reportedly came to rest on a collection of power lines, gas lines, and Comcast and Verizon fiber-optic cables, causing surrounding buildings to shut down power and risking communications in the tri-state area.

By 4:30 p.m., Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director, held a press conference about the sinkhole, claiming that a crane had arrived to remove the bus and would need assembled onsite—a complicated extraction method as to avoid any further damage to the cables below.

At around 10 p.m., the bus was successfully lifted and lowered to safer ground. 10th Street is estimated to remain closed for six to eight weeks to repair and determine what caused the sinkhole.

Until then, crews are working to remove debris and ensure that all below-ground fiber-optic cables are safe so that utility companies can begin assessing damage to water, gas and electric lines.

Pittsburgh Infrastructure and Sinkholes

While a cause for the sinkhole is still being determined, officials say it’s important to remember the age of the city when attempting to pinpoint reasons for this type of failure in aging infrastructure.

“We’re building on top of 250 years of development, and there are vaults all throughout not only Downtown but throughout Western Pennsylvania when it comes to mining and other types of things that were never reported 100 years ago, let alone 200 years ago,” Mayor Bill Peduto said. “There’s a lot of surprises underground.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the average sinkhole size in Pennsylvania ranges between 4-20 feet in diameter, making Pittsburgh’s sinkhole at least triple the average.

One reason can be pointed to the state’s karst landscape—a type of landscape made up of limestone and carbonate bedrock, defined by the National Parks Service as forming “when much of the water falling on the surface interacts with and enters the subsurface through cracks, fractures and holes that have been dissolved into the bedrock."

The U.S. Geological Survey says that sinkholes can also be correlated to land-use practices, such as groundwater pumping and construction and development practices.

Daniel Bain, a professor in Geology and Environmental Science Department at the University of Pittsburgh, claims that it’s hard to determine which reason is more prominent in different sinkhole cases, as both the landscape and infrastructure are undeniable factors. However, Bain told Pittsburgh City Paper, that poor infrastructure is most likely the leading culprit in Pittsburgh's most recent incident.

“There are a lot of things we put underground—water lines, sewer lines, cable lines, electric lines,” Simeon Suter, a Geologist Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Geological Survey, added. “When we excavate and put those lines in and backfill, some settlement takes place. Now what you have under the street is not as compacted as soil.”

And that issue isn’t just a Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania problem, as putting utilities underground is a common practice across the nation.

“It’s a logical place for almost any location,” said Lev Khazanovich, a University of Pittsburgh professor of engineering. “The problem is that, in many cases, those utilities themselves are pretty old, and there are difficult geologic conditions that make it worse.”

In rating the country’s infrastructure every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recently gave the United States a D- grade in 2017, while Pennsylvania received Ds across the board for its drinking water, storm water and wastewater systems in 2018.

Julie Vandenbossche, an assistant professor of geotechnical and pavements engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, claims that the overall issue isn’t in building new roads or bridges or waterways, but finding better solutions to repairing and replacing existing structures.

Recently, in September, a new sinkhole was found along the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a second for the Middletown area since April. that hole measured 5-feet-by-8-feet. A safety investigation was launched by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The sinkhole in April, however, was reported to be 12-feet-by-12-feet. No injuries or pipeline leaks were reported at the sinkhole formation, though the persistence of these problems continued to prompt questions about safety for nearby residents. 


Tagged categories: Accidents; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Roads/Highways; Transportation; Utilities

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