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Homeowner still seeks removal of asphalt from backfill

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| September 27, 2013 3:16 PM

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Bert Ward Kneeling Asphalt

During Bert Ward’s 32 years working as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, he was used to things a certain way.

“We always had to do things properly,” said Ward, now an 87-year-old widower who lives alone at 176 Highwood Drive.

More than two years ago, Ward and other residents in the Cabinet Heights neighborhood were to receive sewer service to their homes through a city-approved contractor. Edstrom Construction of Rexburg, Idaho, was selected to do the work engineered by Morrison Maierle, Inc., the Kalispell firm that contracts for work with the city.

Ward said he has no problem with the sewer construction, as service from his home has worked well since the hookup in 2011.

His criticism stems from the soil and the contents of the fill used in the trenches after the sewer connection was made.

“I’ve dug around and pulled asphalt out of the fill areas,” Ward said. “Asphalt is not supposed to be used as fill in yards. It’s just not,” Ward said. “My son is an engineer, and he tells me the oil in the asphalt can corrode the pipes. It should come out.”

Ward has saved, labeled and categorized chunks of asphalt exposed and removed from sunken areas.

Ward also has had problems with soil settling, and he contends the soil was not compacted as documents report.

To demonstrate, Ward walked into his back yard and turned on a garden hose and held the hose over areas he posted with yellow markers. Holding the hose over the markers and the crack in the earth adjacent to those markers, Ward said “watch this. Tell me what you see and hear.”

From the moment the water hit the ground it disappeared into the small crevice. Listening, the water gurgled as it plunged downward. There was no pooling of surface water. It disappeared into the ground.

Asked whether he was concerned that one day he could come to his back yard and find a caved-in trench, Ward just smiled.

“No, I’m not, but the city should be,” he fired back.

Ward acknowledged work crews that dug the trenches to link his home to the sewer system had to excavate deeper in his yard than most homes in the area because his septic tank was almost 10-feet deep.

Ward’s concern stems from the deeper-excavated trench at his home and the settling of earth in that trench taking longer to settle. He also is concerned about the wrongly filled asphalt  that he fears will impede unified compaction, potentially causing damage to his sewer lines.

“What do I do, in three years from now when because of the asphalt in the trenches a sewer line breaks because of uneven settling,” Ward said. “What I read is it takes almost five years for earth in this area to settle. What if it settles and my sewer line breaks? Who’s going to pay for it because there’s asphalt (preventing even settling) and the soil wasn’t properly compacted.”

On Tuesday, City Administrator Jim Hammons said the city has “closed the books” on the Cabinet Heights residential sewer project.

“At some point, we had to close the project, and we’ve done that,” Hammons said. “However, if (Ward) still has problems with settling, and the mayor instructs me to have crews go up there and fill, we will. Hey, his sewer works fine.”

For his part, Ward admits a measure of frustration. He has written 14 letters of concern to the City Council, Administrator Hammons and Sewer Committee Chairwoman and Council member Robin Benson and has appeared before the City Council several times, the most recent just last month. His earliest letter outlining his concerns is dated Aug. 1, 2010. In a May 10, 2011, correspondence, Ward initially declines payment of his $500 sewer hook-up fee, outlines his concern about asphalt fragments found in sunken filled areas of his yard that measure five to six feet, and Highwood Drive settling near a manhole cover at the end of his driveway.

Still, Ward has paid the sewer hook-up fee.

“No, they really haven’t answered me,” Ward said. “It’s election time, and they say ‘call me with questions.’ I just got this flyer in my door. I’ve called them, and they don’t respond. I guess they just think I’ll go away. Do I look like I’ll just go away?”

Ward’s concerns were addressed by Morrison Maierle, Inc., Engineer Ryan Jones. In a letter dated June 27, 2012, to the Water and Sewer Committee in reference to the “Cabinet Heights Warranty — 176 Highwood Drive,” which is Ward’s address, Jones writes, asphalt was not used in the fill.

Jones quoted the Oct. 27, 2009, entry from On-site Manager Purnal Whitehead’s construction diary: “I informed Brian W., head operator, to place asphalt in a separate pile and when they get enough for a full truckload, they can haul it to the city of Libby’s asphalt pavement storage site along Pipe Creek Road.”

Jones further writes: “This is consistent with the attached STRATA Project Daily Report, which documents density testing along Highwood Drive on Oct. 28, 2009. STRATA was the on-site geotechnical engineer retained by Edstrom Construction to satisfy contractual testing requirements. The report does not indicate that asphalt was used as backfill at any time during the project.

Jones’ report offers the final conclusion: There is no documentation to support Mr. Ward’s claims. Our observations indicated that Mr. Ward’s sewer service line was installed in accordance with industry standards, MPWSS and Contract documents.

“So, where do they think I got these asphalt chunks?” Ward asked. “Do they think I’m lying? The guy filling out the report was not here when they filled the trench. How does he know?”

The timing of earth settling along the trench and at the clean-out was particularly difficult for Ward. He explained it was at that time his wife was returning home from the hospital where she received cancer treatment. Ward said he filled the trench himself so the ambulance could gain closer access to the house.

“I did it myself,” Ward said. “I got out there and filled about a cubic yard so the ambulance could get up here.”

Ward’s wife, Blanche, died not long afterward.

Ward, however, continues his quest to get the asphalt removed from his yard, and he is not the only Cabinet Heights resident who has taken exception with the project.

Vernon “Red” Duncan lives across the street from Ward at 173 Highwood.

“We went to all of these meetings beforehand,” Duncan said. “They told us they were going to annex us so they could sell property down the street (closer to the golf course). They told us there would be no expense to homeowners. Then I get the $500 bill from the city for the (sewer) hook-up. I’ve disagreed with that, and I’m dragging my feet on that as long as I can. You know you can make a statement, but you just can’t beat these politicians.”

Duncan indicated he, too, had problems with settling earth at the trenches, stating he asked workers to leave a mound of dirt on the trench, but they didn’t.

“They told me they couldn’t do that,” Duncan said. “So, when it settled, I had to come back and get dirt to fill. There was a lot of settling, a lot of broken promises.”