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Courts: County sues city and DOT over $6 million sinkhole damage

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Two years after sinkholes caused an estimated $6 million in damage to six county buildings in Georgetown, the county has filed suit to get the state Insurance Reserve Fund to cover the loss. It has also sued the city of Georgetown, state Department of Transportation and contractors on a city drainage project for negligence.

The suits were filed last week in Circuit Court. The statute of limitations on the insurance claim expired Tuesday.

The sinkholes were the result of a project to improve stormwater drainage in the city. It involved drawing down groundwater in an area near City Hall in order to allow construction below ground level. The sinkholes caused the collapse of buildings on Highway 17 near City Hall in November 2011. Several private property owners filed suit this year seeking damages from DOT and the project’s contractors.

The county says the Judicial Center, central magistrates office, Georgetown Library, Department of Social Services building and the Winyah Recreation Center were damaged. So was the county’s administrative office on Prince Street across from the old courthouse, according to the suit.

The negligence suit against the city and DOT also names the project engineer, Davis & Floyd, the contractor and a geological engineering consultant as defendants. The suit claims the construction site should have been isolated with pilings and sheeting that reached impervious layers of limestone. “The pilings were not driven deep enough,” the county claims.

As groundwater was pumped out of the construction site, it caused water to be drawn from the surrounding area. The county claims there was inadequate monitoring of the water flow, but that when it was discovered that water was being drawn from outside the construction site. Pumping was allowed to continue anyway.

“The defendants continued to pump water such that sink holes formed under the land outside the de-watering site and the land slumped and depressed,” the county claims.

An affidavit from George Sembos, president of GS2 Engineering, filed with the negligence suit, says the designers and contractors failed to “conform to the standard of care required.” He also says there may be further impacts from the project.

“The geological/hydrological conditions of downtown Georgetown have been altered as a result of the dewatering efforts undertaken to construct the drainage improvement project,” Sembos says. “These geological/hydrological alterations of Georgetown may affect the subject sites and adjacent properties in an unknown/unpredictable manner in the future.”

The county buildings had “cracks and other damages that occurred over a period of weeks and months,” the suit claims.

Along with claims for negligence, trespass (pumping water from under county property) and nuisance, the county includes a claim for “inverse condemnation” against the city and DOT because the damage caused to its buildings is a “taking” of property for a public purpose for which it should be compensated.

The county is seeking damages and costs.

The suit against the state Insurance Reserve Fund says the agency has not acted on the claim submitted by the county in November 2011. It asks the court to rule that its insurance policy covered the damage and to award the county damages and costs.

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