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New airport runway drainage issues linger

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Standing water on the Marlatt Field taxiway area serves as a red flag to BoAC members that recent construction here wasn’t done properly.
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Lack of a proper slope on the sides of a new runway are troublesome to BoAC members, who fear if water isn’t flowing away from the multi-million dollar improvement, its life span will be significantly altered.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Water always wins.

Ask the farmer, the homeowner or any New Castle-Henry County Board of Aviation member these days, and they’ll tell you the three-word sentence is not only true, but revealing as well.

Standing water tells a story at Marlatt Field these days, a story of contractors who may have underestimated just how much work would be involved with building a new runway.

Tom Green, a veteran pilot and member of BoAC, said the new airport runway here is “nice and smooth” and now has really bright LED lighting. He’s landed here himself since it was completed last fall and says it’s a great improvement.

But bringing the drainage problems in for a landing on either side of the runway – well, that’s proving to be far more difficult.

“There is water in places it should not be,” Green said. “That water is clear evidence things are not right.”

Four contractors who worked on the project – Boyd, Michiana, O’Mara and 3-D – have all been questioned about the lingering problems. Boyd & Company Construction of Washington, Ind. was the firm hired to do soil and drainage work.

Green said he was worried before the project was complete and even called contractor friend Keith Pritchett out to get a second opinion.

“I said ‘Keith, come out here and look at this. This can’t be right,’” Green said.

Now, Pritchett is a member of the board and has been an outspoken critic of work done by the contractors along with BoAC member Gene Clark.

“Having Pritchett, a pilot and respected expert in excavation and grading, has proven to be invaluable to the board’s understanding of the scope of issues remaining to be resolved,” Green added. “Keith has spent many hours reviewing plans, digging into airport design and governmental guidelines to better understand what is needed to fix the problems and has done so with no compensation because of his dedication to this community.”

Criticism has been particularly harsh to Boyd in particular, and the oversight of engineering firm Woolpert.

“I think they were surprised we came up with so many complaints that by the time they finally looked into it, they couldn’t disagree with anything we told them,” Green said.

Woolpert sent in a new team of officials to deal with the problem.

“They pulled in some top guns because they knew we had a problem and they just couldn’t halfway fix it,” Green said.

The problems

Grading on either side of the new runway isn’t making the grade, so to speak.

During a recent tour of the runway, Green pointed out to The Courier-Times how the slope from the new runway isn’t steep enough to lead water away from it. He pointed to cattails growing next to the runway as proof that water is not draining sufficiently.

“If it was, you wouldn’t have that kind of growth,” Green said. “They’re going to have to re-grade quite a bit of this.”

While the new runway is on high enough ground that Green says water is unlikely to ever be standing on it, the lack of proper drainage underneath it is troubling.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have water standing on this runway, but we’re going to saturate the ground under it, which will shorten its life,” Green said.

Multiple issues regarding soil have also been uncovered, according to Green.

“No one particular issue resulted in some of these problems, but they all added up,” he said. “It is very rare that a new runway gets built. It just hardly ever happens any more. It could be the contractor who did the majority of the big grading for the runway may have underestimated the scope of work. We knew this is really flat ground out here. We think there wasn’t enough available topsoil on the site to make everything grade the way it should have been.

“They should have probably brought in more dirt,” Green added. “Bringing in truckload after truckload of dirt costs a lot of money. I suspect they underestimated how much dirt was available at the site. 

Drainage issues, if not resolved, could ultimately mean not getting the most out of taxpayer dollars, more than $5 million of which have come from the federal government.

Green surmises busy contractors with an eye on their next job might have thought “It’s OK, it will be all right, it’s good enough. It’s not their money.”

But he emphasizes most of the grading work will have to be redone and most of the ground re-seeded to make things right.

At a special April 16 BoAC meeting, Chris Snyder, a Woolpert representative, discussed a plan of action for repairs, including overseeding the area and a stipulation for minimum thickness of top soil to be used. He also discussed details for regrading and stabilization.

“I personally question the skillset of the operators running that equipment,” Green said. “I don’t run that equipment for a living, but I had questions from the very beginning. If they just looked at it, they should have thought “how are you going to make water go away from that?”