Residents await repairs after DeKalb explosions damaged homes

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Shelitha Kindell’s couch tilts to the right because her living room has sunk a few inches. Her wall is cracked around windows and the ceiling. A pan catches water that drips from the roof whenever it rains.

For about three years, Kindell has lived with the aftermath of earth-shaking explosions from construction at a nearby DeKalb County sewage plant. She's still waiting for the county government to make it right.

She estimates repairs on the home she’s owned with her husband for 24 years will cost $37,000. The county’s offer? Just $3,000, she said.

“They still don’t want to own up to the damage,” Kindell said. “My house is sinking. They got us in a hole. They know it’s hard to sue the county.”

The county has settled 116 claims from residents who live near the plant, paying about $350,000. But some, like the Kindells, are still waiting. The DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted last month to approve $151,531 more to settle the 13 remaining claims.

Blasting at the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant began in 2012 as a contractor cleared granite and graded the site for its expansion. The $187 million project will eventually replace the plant's aging infrastructure and prepare for population growth, increasing capacity from 36 million gallons a day to 54 million gallons a day.

The explosions rocked the Chapel Hill subdivision, damaging living rooms, foundations and driveways.

“My house shook so bad I thought I was in California,” said Deanna Fleming, whose deck separated from the house and crashed to the ground. “The intensity is very hard. You could really feel it.”

After blastings in early June 2013, she boarded up the back of her wrecked house. She eventually agreed to settlements with the county worth $13,800 for the deck and $2,330 for sinkholes and damage to air conditioning units.

“A lot of people are still not getting what they need to fix their property,” Fleming said. “They’re not thinking of us, the taxpayers, the people they’re supposedly working for.”

The county government acknowledges that it initially under-estimated the cost of the damage, said spokesman Burke Brennan. He said he hopes the latest money appropriated for claims will help the remaining residents harmed by the blasting.

“We absolutely strive to achieve an equitable resolution,” Brennan said. “Part of the problem was that it’s unique to have a project of this magnitude. We did lack the infrastructure to adequately address claims from the outset.”

Still, some homeowners doubt they’ll be made whole.

LaVeda Bennett told county commissioners during a meeting Tuesday that she’s been trying for years to reach a resolution.

“The money they offered for my home was like a slap in the face,” she said. “I have ceilings that are separating from the walls. I have a 1,000-pound wall unit that should be flush up against the wall, but it’s leaning to the point where my kids don’t want me sitting in my living room.”

DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who represents southeastern areas of the county near where the sewage plant is located, said she shares residents' concerns.

“We’re human, and mistakes were made. Just like in everyday life when mistakes are made, you have to compensate for those as much as possible,” she said. “I’m hopeful going forward that we’ve learned from this lesson and we would mitigate any type of damage that may occur to homes, if any, in the future.”

The blasting in 2012 and 2013 was conducted by Desmear Systems, a Tucker company that was awarded a $7.7 million contract for the project.

The county halted work in September 2013, citing subpar construction, including a structurally unsound retaining wall. The contract was rebid, and blasting resumed earlier this year with contractor Archer Western handling the job.

The construction work continues to rattle houses in the neighborhood, residents said. But the county hasn’t received any new claims of damage, Brennan said.