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Engineer explains origin of 'sinkholes' on West Ridge High site

Rick Wagner • Aug 8, 2018 at 8:39 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The purported sinkholes on the site of Sullivan County’s future high school turned out to be pits formed by blasting rock, an engineer says.

That’s how Alex Merritt on Tuesday night shot down the drone images school board member Mark Ireson introduced last week, images Ireson presented as “anomalies” needing further investigation as possible sinkholes and a reason to delay awarding the construction bid for West Ridge High School.

Merritt, geotechnical engineer of record for  the project and Tri-Cities branch manager for GEOServices LLC, told the Board of Education the purported sinkholes are nothing more than blasting pits left from dynamiting rock to level the site of the new school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. One photo indicated 139 F150 pickups would fit in the anomaly.

One pit was shown in drone photos Ireson shared with the BOE during a called meeting to vote on the West Ridge construction contracts, the same pit also shown in a drone video posted on Facebook. Merritt said that pit and a smaller one were simply the result of blasting. 

“That is not a karst-induced sinkhole. That is blasting operations,” Merritt told the board after an introduction from architect Dineen West.

She had offered to call Merritt during last Wednesday’s called BOE meeting, during which a roomful of mostly school opponents faced the board. However, the BOE approved granting the low bids on the construction contracts totaling almost $59.3 million, including $4.8 million to be paid from fund balance and the rest from bond proceeds.

Merritt said that Ireson’s presentation at the called meeting focused on March 2017 information included in a bid packet and that additional investigation of possible sinkholes on the site had been done. 

“That further review has been completed,” Merritt said.

He said initially five core borings were done on the site, but that after the footprint of the school was moved slightly, 12 new borings in “May or June” of this year were completed.

Ireson said he had asked for the results of the additional investigations, but Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski told him it “didn’t happen.”

After Merritt left, Ireson asked for the details on the second set of borings as well as any potential additional areas of concern the drilling might have revealed. West and Rafalowski said they would supply that information to the board.

After the meeting, West described the March 2017 “anomalies” language in bid documents as boilerplate for any major construction project in sinkhole-prone Northeast Tennessee.

During the BOE meeting, Rafalowski also presented a packet of documents indicating the Tennessee Department of Education had no findings, issues or problems with the way the school system has handled federal money for the past three years.

Ireson had said that auditor Dustin Winstead had told him an investigation of carryover federal funds and possible need for corrective actions would be initiated, but Winstead’s boss, Maryanne Durski, wrote a letter dated Monday saying that “no corrective actions were needed” on any federal audits.

“I think it was more of a misunderstanding than anything,” Rafalowski said.

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