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Commissioner seeks oversight of sinkhole grout

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Published:   |   Updated: February 18, 2014 at 06:43 PM

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BROOKSVILLE - Contrary to what some are suggesting, County Commissioner Diane Rowden said she doesn't want to outlaw grout in Hernando County.

Nor is she seeking to create a new ordinance that would prohibit its use by companies employing it in sinkhole stabilization.

All Rowden said she wants is for her colleagues to support her in enforcing a 20-year-old ordinance on the books that will protect residents from potentially unsafe drinking water.

And she is not pleased that the board last week dismissed her concerns.

"They literally blew me off," she said.

Rowden asked her colleagues for permission to ask legal and planning staff to move forward with researching possible harmful chemicals used in grout that is being pumped into the ground to stabilize sinkholes.

Rowden said she is concerned some of those chemicals, such as fly ash that is mixed in the grout, will harm the underground aquifer and contaminate drinking water.

But Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he is not about to toss Hernando County into a lawsuit it cannot win. Dukes said if the county introduces new rules on grout or tries to regulate its use without the proper guidance and support from the state, then private companies who do this work can sue Hernando County.

"We need to tread lightly," Dukes said. "If you're going to stop something you better have the science to prove it and we don't have that."

A geologist has also weighed in on the subject.

Creative Environmental Solutions Inc. President George Foster, in a Feb. 10 memo to the county, said fly ash "when used properly" in the grout process, "poses no significant risk to the groundwater quality."

"The bottom line is that I do not believe, based on my review of the recent literature, that a mixture of cement and fly ash - properly formulated - poses a risk to groundwater quality," Foster wrote in the memo.

But Rowden said the key words are "when used properly" and there is no guarantee right now that firms who use fly ash in grout are using the proper mixture.

Rowden said the groundwater protection ordinance from 1994 already addresses sinkholes and "what cannot be put in the ground."

That ordinance states that sinkholes that open up in Hernando County "shall be reported prior to backfilling" and that firms would be in violation of the ordinance if inappropriate substances are used to fill in the void.

"I just think it's really important for the health safety and welfare or our citizens that we know what's being pumped into the ground," said Rowden, who added there are alternatives to grout, such as underpins used to prop up a home's foundation.

Rowden also cited a July 2012 letter from Richard Owen, executive director of the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority who said that groundwater sources "may be at-risk of possible contamination by some remediation practices, specifically from the potential for inappropriate types of materials being injected into the ground to stabilize homes and other structures."

Owen wrote the letter to Herschel Vinyard Jr., secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, after this region experienced a notable increase in sinkhole activity.

Commissioners did agree to include Rowden's research in a written packet to be sent to Gov. Scott and other governmental officials.

Dukes said it makes more sense to fire off a letter to state and federal legislators for more guidance and input on this matter before involving county staff. It is more prudent, he said, to find out what other counties are doing or what the state requires in the way of grout for sinkholes, he said.

Legislators could then seek answers from officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the suitability of grout.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he will be in Tallahassee soon and will broach the subject with legislators.

Rowden doubted the effectiveness of Adkins' mission.

"What are you going to do and who are you going to talk to?" Rowden asked Adkins. "That is really a lame answer."

Adkins said if you meet the right people in the state capitol, things get done and this might be one of them, he said.

Some companies are now using fly ash in lieu of cement in the grout mixture because it is cheaper and facilitates the flow process.

Some environmentalists though, call fly ash a hazardous material and health danger and are lobbying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to classify it as such. Fly ash is made of bits of unburned ash and is the byproduct of coal-fired plants that produce electricity.

Dukes said Monday he has been investigating the use of fly ash in grout for several months and was unable to get a clear consensus on its perceived harmfulness to the groundwater from geologists.

"I haven't found anybody who said it's not OK," Dukes said.

Property appraiser data shows there are 6,500 homes in Hernando County that have reported sinkhole activity. Of those, 54 percent have not been repaired.

If Hernando County were to start passing new rules on grout usage for sinkhole stabilization, which he said Rowden is suggesting, then the county could be hit by an expensive lawsuit from companies such as Brooksville-based Cemex and other manufacturers of cement, he said.

It would be difficult to win such a lawsuit because there is no scientific data to back up any claim that grout is harmful, Dukes said.

Better to let Gov. Rick Scott decide whether the use of grout is appropriate for sinkhole remediation and make it the law of the land for all counties to follow, Dukes said.

That, he said, would get Hernando County off the hook if sued.

mbates@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5290

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