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Construction of Metro’s Green Line station in Columbia Heights has brought a number of expected headaches for surrounding residents. Huge construction machinery clogs the side streets and tracks mud through the neighborhood, excavations have turned well-traveled roads into obstacle courses, and the roar of engines and generators never seems to stop.
Still, locals never suspected that their houses, churches, and cars would be in danger of sinking below the horizon before Metro trains can make their debut. An anonymous flier, circulated through the neighborhood over the past two weeks, says that Columbia Heights is in jeopardy of falling into a black hole created by ill-advised Metro construction.
The flier claims that Metro officials and contractors for the Columbia Heights station “have agreed that there are problems underground which could cause serious property damage, injury and even death to [residents] of the area.”
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Among the flier’s more serious allegations is that there’s “a better than even chance the houses and church on the north side of the 1000 block of Park Road will suffer major damage in the near future from a cave-in.” It also mentions a sinkhole that recently gobbled up a chunk of ground the size of an automobile. “[If] someone had been in a car or standing there they would have been killed,” it says.
Metro spokesman Rod Burfield says that the flier’s allegations are “substantial exaggerations” and points out that humongous construction projects like a subway station are bound to create some inconvenience. “We’re digging tunnels in the middle of a city,” says Burfield. Still, residents have their reasons for worrying—complaints and mishaps have been piling up faster than mud and debris around the project. The Green Line construction, residents say, is kicking up more than dust and inconvenience.
On May 18, two Metro construction workers were hospitalized after an explosion at an excavation site. The workers were removing contaminated dirt under a former gas station, and a spark caused by a backhoe hitting a metal pipe ignited gases that had been released during the excavation. Burfield said the explosion was minor and that all required precautions had been taken.
Metro’s precautions also haven’t prevented the frequent power and utility outages that Columbia Heights residents have suffered since construction began.
A Girard Street resident says construction has cut off her phone service so many times that Bell Atlantic asked her to consider suing Metro.
Rats have become the most ubiquitous manifestation of the Green Line digging. By Metro’s own admission, construction has uprooted the habitat of local rats, sending them in search of new haunts in the alleys and basements of Columbia Heights. Before construction began in 1994, Metro officials pledged a concerted rat-control campaign. But that’s not what Yavonne Jackson heard at a May 23 meeting with Metro at the Park Road Community Church. “They said that Metro was responsible for rats on their storage areas,” Jackson said. “The rest of us had to call the Department of Public Works.”
Metro isn’t even keeping its side of the bargain, according to New Hampshire Avenue resident Dr. William McDonald. “Their storage space right there in the park is the haven for our biggest rats,” he says.
Still, power outages and rat infestation look trivial alongside the real scare in the neighborhood: sinkholes. Burfield said that Metro had identified two “surface depressions”—he refused to use the term “sinkhole”—caused by the construction but stressed that they were within areas cordoned off by Metro contractors. Burfield’s assurances are little comfort for locals like Derek Huff of New Hampshire Avenue. “It’s kind of like they are conducting an experiment, because they really don’t know how the soil is going to behave,” says Huff.
Park Street resident Bill Vaughan says that Metro’s indifference to the neighborhood makes the blunders hard to swallow. In January, a Metro contractor’s bulldozer smashed in the radiator of Vaughan’s Nissan Pathfinder. At first the contractor denied responsibility for the damage, even though the bulldozer’s tracks told a different story. Vaughan is still haggling with the contractor over the insurance settlement. He says Metro’s disregard for his vehicle is emblematic of larger problems.
“Watch out,” Vaughan cautions. “They just don’t care.” —Bonnie Cain