Talk about a sunken cost.
The fire department says they have a sinkhole problem — one that would cost $1 million to fix.
“Do we really have a sinkhole that big?” Assemblywoman Kate Troll asked the fire chief skeptically during a recent finance committee meeting.
In short, yes, said Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge. One sinkhole that opened up this fall at the downtown fire station parking lot was large enough to fit a pickup truck in it, he said.
“I was able to stand in it up to my neck,” added Etheridge, who towers over everyone in the room at around 6’6”.
The price tag may sound astronomical — after all, the state of Alaska Department of Transportation fills all the potholes in Juneau each year with a budget of about $15,000 to $20,000. But the high expense is due to Juneau’s unique infrastructure, one that harkens back to the city’s mining past, the chief said.
The downtown fire station, located at 820 Glacier Avenue (i.e. not far from Juneau’s original shoreline) is built on fill. Much of downtown Juneau, which sits at sea level, is built on wooden pilings and mine tailings from the AJ Mine.
Water still flows under the station, and the supporting soil beneath the rear parking lot has finally washed away after years of the tide moving in and out. No to mention the decomposition of organic materials, he said.
“We over the years have had sinkhole problems at the downtown fire station,” Etheridge said. “They just randomly open up.”
Making matters worse is the fact that it is a fire station. Fire engines weighing more than 50,000 pounds send vibrations into the ground on a daily basis.
That’s the cause of the fire chief’s concern.
“We’ve just started talking this last year with engineering before we actually lose a vehicle,” he told the finance committee members. “The fire engines are back there vibrating over flowing water, and if we get a sinkhole large enough to damage a fire engine, that would be very disastrous for this community.”
“So that’s not an exaggeration?” Troll asked, pointing to the worksheet that lists the $1 million sinkhole as CCFR’s number one critically deferred maintenance priority.
“No, not at all,” Etheridge replied.
The fire chief said the firefighters have made do by filling the sinkholes in with dirt and cold patch material from Home Depot, but that it should really be fixed at the structural level at some point.
“After a big rain, we get lakes where the next holes will be opening up,” he said.