County jail construction causing small ‘earthquakes'

SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - Nick Pesina thought the Earth might open up and swallow him whole as he brushed his teeth Wednesday morning.

He lives in an upstairs apartment next to the site where construction crews are driving 46-foot, 3/8-inch-thick sheet piles to support dirt while building the new addition to Smith County jail.

A pile driver does the work. About 6 feet of the sheet piles will be exposed when the machine stops hammering.

But the hammering is causing vibrations, with each blow rattling dishes, windows, shaking walls and making occupants of nearby downtown buildings feel as if they are experiencing an earthquake. Some of the buildings were constructed before 1900.

Pesina, a local attorney, said the construction has caused noise and some vibrations, but beginning about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday the pounding caused dishes and windows to rattle inside his apartment.

"I didn't know what was going on at first. Then I thought ‘construction,'" he said. "I did think about (the building falling around me) while I was brushing my teeth but not too much."

The descriptions by Pesina, and other neighbors within a block of the site, are similar to those given by the U.S. Geological Survey regarding earthquake magnitudes ranging from 3.0 to 4.9 on the Richter scale.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program description of 3.0 to 3.9 range from being felt only by a few people, especially on upper floors of buildings on the low end, to being felt quite noticeably by people indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings with vibrations similar to the passing of a big truck.

A 4.0 to 4.9 magnitude earthquake is felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. A quake on the low end of the scale can awaken people and disturb dishes, windows, doors and may cause cracking sounds in walls, according to USGS.

The "sensation (is) like a heavy truck striking a building," the description said.

On the high end of that range the quake is felt by everyone nearby. Some dishes and windows are broken, and unstable objects can be overturned.

USGS geophysicist Julie Dutton said the sensations felt by neighbors are not comparable to an actual earthquake. Earthquakes begin from the center of the earth, she said, whereas the seismic activity produced by the pile driver is on the surface.

"The surface wave, if you are really close, you may feel the effects, but they're not correlative to an earthquake," she said.

Ms. Dutton said huge blasting sites where explosives are used to cut away rock typically only register around 3.0 on the scale.


Turner/HGR construction site manager Matt Harris said the company expected calls regarding the noise, which echoed around the square with each thud when the sheet piles were being set up beginning last week. Harris said there was nothing in the environmental impact site study or building specifications that directed monitoring seismic impacts of the pile driver on nearby buildings.

"This type of work goes on near other buildings all over the state and country," he said. "I am not aware that it was a consideration."

Harris said the site safety manager contacted or attempted to contact nearby occupants to discuss noise and possible impacts to living near the site.

Turner/HGR staff also photographed the physical condition, including "stress cracks," of neighboring structures prior to construction.

Neighbors and Harris said there is no way around the work. The pile driving is expected to finish today, he said.

The downtown jail expansion will adjoin the downtown facility on the corner of Fannin Avenue and Erwin Street. It will add a six-story building and house 384 high/medium-risk, double-occupancy cells and cost between $25 million and $28 million.

The sound and vibrations of the pile driver were noted by Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass during a city council meeting at Liberty Hall, near the west end of Erwin Street on the same block as Pesina's apartment.
Salon Verve owner Jimmy Arber, whose business is on the ground level of the building next to the site, said everything in his office jumps when the hammer falls.

"It's like Godzilla is doing Riverdance," he said.

Arber said it is a noise nuisance, but he worries the vibrations could cause damage to the 19th Century building. He was contacted by Turner/HGR and asked to report any damages to personal property or the building, he said.

The building's owner, John O'Sullivan, said the two-story brick and mortar building on the corner of Spring Avenue and Erwin Street, across the street from the site, was built in 1885. He said he has not talked to Turner/HGR representatives but that the previous owner of the building blamed construction — specifically the driving of steel into the ground — of the original jail in 1984-85 for the collapse of the building's rear wall.

The wall was reconstructed by O'Sullivan. He said an engineered foundation and block wall was constructed. He said he is not concerned about the new construction but that the outer wall could sustain possible damage.

"We want the jail. It's a good thing for Tyler and downtown, and the work has to be done," he said. "I'm sure they have insurance, but it doesn't help if it hurts someone."


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