That Sinking Feeling

Sinkhole that ate Seacliff still eats at its residents

In 1989, concerned residents of western San Francisco argued that the Richmond Transport Tunnel was a dangerous boondoggle. City engineers proposed the alternative of building a sewage holding tank under a Presidio parking lot.

But congressional representatives opposed the plan, even though it was less expensive, and the Richmond Transport Tunnel is now available to provide expanded sewer service to commercial ventures lining up to privately develop parts of the Presidio.

Despite a report suggesting that a government project caused the Seacliff sinkhole, the government is doing almost nothing to help those affected by the disaster.

Much of the Seacliff terrain demolished by the sinkhole lies within the grounds of the Presidio. Rather than restore that land to its former beauty, the Park Service has spent $4.5 million in disaster mitigation funds "to recreate the natural landscape of 1870." Today, desiccated clumps of desert shrubbery struggle in the moonscape left by the sinkhole. A grove of Monterey pines survived the holocaust, only to be chopped down by the Park Service because they are not indigenous to the area.

To date, the Department of Public Works has spent $12 million repairing the consequences of the tragedy. The same contractors that built the Richmond Tunnel were employed to clean up the sinkhole mess. Haley & Aldrich, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, Shank/Balfour Beatty, a construction firm headquartered in Denver, and locally based Ruiz Construction have received $8 million in contracts to fix the exploded plumbing that, according to Failure Analysis Associates, "may have been induced" by construction work on the Richmond Transport Tunnel.

But Jerry Stokes, spokesperson for Shank/Balfour Beatty, says the disaster was "caused by DPW work which blocked the downstream opening of the sewer, causing it to pressurize and blow up."

"DPW is trying to blame the contractors and consultants to get at our insurance," Stokes adds.

The Public Works Department refused comment because the matter is in litigation. Manfred Wong, the current DPW project engineer for the Seacliff work, says he has not read the Failure Analysis report analyzing the disaster.

While the Billmans' insurance policy covered their losses, the Yees have not been so lucky. The San Francisco City Attorney's Office is contesting the Yees' $1.3 million claim against the city for damages to their home. The city's "rainstorm and earth movement" explanation provided the Yees' home insurance company, CSE Insurance, with a reason to deny payment to the Yees: The insurers have interpreted the cave-in of the city's sewage lines as an act of God. Half a dozen sinkhole lawsuits filed by Seacliff residents say God had nothing to do with it.

"We were naive," says McAfee. "We used to think government was interested in serving the people. Instead, they treated us with disdain.

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