Our View: When we don’t want to know

Our View: When we don’t want to know
The Potomac Yard Metro Station is set to open on May 19. (File Photo)

It’s human nature to avoid bad news. Sometimes we delay a needed medical exam for fear of what will be found. Sometimes we avoid a phone call bringing sad tidings.

Governments also often avoid digging for information that might bring unwanted news.

The city for years refused to test the soil at Taylor Run for the very pollutants for which it had received a grant award from the state of Virginia to clean up. City leaders clearly didn’t want to learn that the grant was based on a false premise.

When resident-scientists began independently testing the soil, they found negligible levels of phosphorus and other pollutants – results that were confirmed when the city finally authorized its own testing.

A much more tragic example of not wanting to know was revealed earlier this month in a Wall Street Journal investigative story “The Airport on a Fault Line.” In it, WSJ reporters tell a tale of a building boom in Turkey during which concerns about safety and building standards were swept aside by the government of Recep Erdogan.

The story focuses on the Hatay international airport, completed in 2007 – and knowingly built on top of a fault line and dried lake. When the February earthquake struck the region, the almost 500,000 square foot glass paneled terminal crumbled, along with the runway.

“When the first quake struck before dawn on Feb. 6, at magnitude 7.8, the former lake bed underneath the airfield sank several feet and the terminal’s glass canopy crashed to the ground,” the WSJ article states. “Passengers scrambled for cover as the airport’s nearly 2-mile-long runway ruptured, leaving rescue planes unable to fly in search teams and medical supplies for six days.”

Despite repeated warnings about the instability of this site, and many others throughout the country, Erdogan’s building boom continued unabated for almost 20 years. It’s worth noting that the Hatay airport functioned for almost 16 years before tragedy struck.

We raise the calamity in Turkey as an example in the extreme of what can happen when a major transportation project is sited on potentially unstable soil.

This is relevant because we can find no evidence that testing of soil stability at the new $350 million Potomac Yard Metro site – slated for a ribbon cutting on May 19 – has been performed since soil instability remediation work was performed last fall.

For the uninitiated, this project was deliberately built and staged on top of almost five acres of ancient wetlands when another nearby site, that would have resulted in less environmental damage, was available. The project was then halted last fall for several months, in part because soil instability was found that necessitated remediation work. As geologist Tony Fleming said in today’s page 1 story, “City readies for Metro ribbon cutting,” soil at wetlands sites “… is infinitely compressible. It has no strength. When you bury that stuff, the weight of the overlying fell will keep compressing it over long periods of time.”

This week, we reached out to WMATA to ask about post-remediation testing, but no one on staff was made available to talk with us. We sent an emailed question ask- ing explicitly if any post-remediation testing had been performed at the site, which was unanswered in the statement that we received in response.

The WMATA statement reads in part:

“Potomac Yard Station is built on a bed of 1500 concrete columns anchored in dense, very hard soil 50-60 feet deep and will provide a stable foundation for the lifespan of the station. We are working with our partners at WMSC on safety testing and certification …”

An Alexandria resident has also asked the City of Alexandria, through FOIA requests, for all testing reports on soil stability at the Potomac Yard Metro site. The only reports he has received were done prior to the station’s construction, and the late 2022 soil remediation, not after.

While we don’t doubt Mayor Justin Wilson’s contention that the city has provided all of the reports it has, it also appears that those reports don’t include post-remediation testing.

In our article last week about resident-city collaboration, Jesse Maines, Alexandria’s division chief of stormwater management, said the city ultimately decided to conduct its own testing at Taylor Run because staff wanted to know they could “stand behind the results.”

The same thing needs to happen at the Potomac Yard Metro site prior to the May 19 ribbon-cutting. If WMATA hasn’t or won’t perform post-remediation soil testing, then the City of Alexandria needs to.

Let’s make the effort to literally dig – and risk unwanted findings – before the Potomac Yard Metro opens for business.