City Howl Help Desk: The sinkhole that ate 54th & Pine

The hole and the barriers around it.
The hole and the barriers around it.
Posted: May 25, 2011

THE PROBLEM: It started out small. Just a little hole at 54th and Pine. It was early February and snow still coated the streets.

No one thought twice about the little opening in the road. But in the following weeks, the hole grew, creeping toward the curb. Eventually, the gutter caved in.

Responding to a complaint, the Water Department installed a large metal plate over the hole in mid-February. But the hole was relentless, and ate into the sidewalk as well.

"Slowly but surely, everything started sinking in," said Brenda Hill, who lives around the corner from the hole, which has been around for so long it's become a neighborhood landmark. Ask anyone on the streets surrounding 54th and Pine, and they can point you in the direction of the sinkhole.

When Help Desk checked out the hole last week, there were barricades and caution tape surrounding the sinkhole. The area is nearly the size of a small car, but it's difficult to tell how big the hole is since a metal plate covers it. Three wooden planks, installed by the Water Department a few days before, acted as a makeshift cover. Under the planks was the sight that made neighbors most nervous: a dark cavern leading into the sewage system that was big enough to hold a person.

The hole in the sidewalk was exposed for about two months before the Water Department covered it with the planks. Even now, residents worry that the easily removable planks aren't enough to protect children from falling in. Hill said she's constantly chasing them away.

On warm days, the hole stinks up the intersection, said Chung Hung, an employee at the Chinese-takeout place on the corner. Neighbors are frustrated, and said they've been calling 3-1-1, the Water Department, the Streets Department and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's office. They still have no idea when the hole will be fixed.

WHO BROKE THE STREET? The hole was created by a broken inlet lateral, a pipe that carries sewage from houses to the sewer line, Water Department spokesman John DiGiulio said. Water from the broken pipe eroded the street, causing it to cave in.

When Help Desk called the Water Department last week, DiGiulio said a repair was scheduled for the following day. Due to heavy rains, it was rescheduled for today. It will take only a day, DiGiulio said.

WHAT TOOK SO LONG? The metal plate was installed over the hole on the same day as the first complaint was received, according to the Water Department's records. DiGiulio said the department continued to monitor the hole and performed tests to determine the cause of the problem for the next few months.

Still, it's not clear why it took two months for the department to cover the open sidewalk.

DiGiulio attributed the delay to the department's priority list.

Some problems, such as a water-main break or a sewer-line break, must be fixed immediately. Weather is also a consideration. Repairing the broken inlet lateral involves repaving that has to be done by the Streets Department. But Streets doesn't start that type of work until April 1, DiGiulio said.

After the street is fixed, the Water Department won't return to check on their work unless it gets a complaint.

IS THIS A LIABILITY FOR THE CITY? Norman Prajzner, chief deputy of the Law Department's claims unit, said he doesn't often see sinkhole-accident lawsuits against the city. (Trip-and-fall cases over potholes are more common.) Still, the hole is a concern for public safety, he said, adding that he'll alert city risk manager Barry Scott.

HOW COULD THE NEIGHBORS HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE STATUS OF THE HOLE? Employees at the Water Department's complaint line (215-685-6300) can't tell you the exact day a repair will be made since the schedule isn't available on their computer systems. (A call to the crew chief is necessary to figure out the specific dates.)

But they should be able to tell you the status of a problem, such as if the department is testing an area, or if it plans to fix a problem, DiGiulio said, if you ask.

- Juliana Reyes reports for It's Our Money

Have a concern about city services? Let us know at www.thecityhowl.com, email howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855.

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