Ruth Spangler's battle with the District to repair a sinkhole in her front yard that keeps growing larger began nearly 2 1/2 years ago.
"I've had the grand runaround for a long time," said Spangler, who lives at 120 Fourth St. SE. "What does it take to move this city?"
Her plight began on May 20, 1980, when her sister, Grace Harbo, 71, was walking on a brick path in Spangler's front yard. One of the bricks collapsed into the ground. Harbo, who lives next door at 118 Fourth St., fell and badly sprained her ankle.
Spangler called the city Water Department because she believed the incident was the result of water eroding the ground beneath her brick walkway. A week later, the Water Department told her that an inspector was sent to her house but left after finding no water. They referred her to the Department of Transportation.
Since then, no fewer than five city agencies have been involved with Spangler's problem. And in the ensuing 27 months, the hole in her front yard has grown from the size of a brick to four feet wide and nearly three feet deep, nearly half of the front lawn of her Capitol Hill brick row house.
"I've been afraid to do anything in my front yard," she said.
Spangler, retired from the Internatonal Monetary Fund, kept a careful chronology of events since the original incident and said few city officials have showed any real concern for her problem. "They kept passing the buck from one department to another," she said.
What the city did for Spangler was minimal, she claims. Workers from DOT placed a plywood board over the hole in 1980. Since then, a yellow dye has been placed in the hole on four separate occasions in an attempt to trace the cause of the sinkhole. Each time the dye was poured into the hole, however, the 500 gallons of water used to flush it through created a larger hole, Spangler charges.
Although Spangler's problem is the most severe, other residents on Fourth Street complain that their properties have been affected by the mysterious problem.
The front stairway to a four-unit apartment building at 122 Fourth St., next to Spangler's home, was declared unsafe by the real estate company managing the property and an iron works firm last May. The owners of the building spent $1,200 to strengthen the stairs that were sinking into the ground, according to an agent of Millicent Chattel Realtors, managers of the building. At the time, iron workers attempted to measure the depth of a number of holes in the sidewalk in front of the apartment building and Spangler's house. The worker did not reach the bottom with a 13-foot measuring stick, the real estate agent said.
"I just want the city to fix the problem," said Jerome Rosenberg, of 116 Fourth St., two houses from Spangler's. Rosenberg spent $1,500 eight months ago to repair a problem with water seeping into the first floor of his house and peeling the paint off his front wall. "I suspect that we'll have to do it all over again in three years," he said. Spangler's sister has had a similar problem at 118 Fourth St.
City officials from the Department of Environmental Service, the War on Rats program, the Water and Sewer Department and the Department of Transportation have disagreed over the cause of the problem. One belief is that it is the result of an underground abandoned sewer line that has collapsed, said Walter Ommundsen, a supervisor at DOT.
City records show that an existing 15-inch sewer pipe built in 1889 runs beneath the sidewalk in front of Spangler's house, according to DES. Records showing the date and location of the previous line were not kept.
A dye test performed last May proved the condition was not the result of the existing sewer line, according to Vincent Hawkins, acting chief of consumer affairs of the Sewer Department. He said he "doubted very seriously" if the problem could be blamed on the abondoned sewer line because there would be holes in all the yards along the east side of Fourth Street. As far as the Sewer Department is concerned, Hawkins said, the case is closed and is the responsibility of one of the other city agencies.
Some officials speculate that the condition may exist because of a natural phenomenon, similar to the problem that has existed in Central Florida the last few years in which sinkholes have swallowed entire houses and automobiles.
The shortest-lived explanation for the hole in Spangler's front yard and the damage to the neighboring homes was rats. Last May 4, an official from the Sewer Department said rats might have created a tunnel system under Spangler's yard. But two weeks and three telephone calls by Spangler disproved that theory after an official from the War on Rats branch of DES investigated the area.
Spangler battled the different city agencies throughout much of 1980 and was told twice that the city was going to dig with heavy machinery to determine the cause of the sinkhold. Neither time was any digging performed.
Spangler didn't pursue the problem at all during 1981. "I was so sick and tired of the whole thing. I thought maybe it would correct itself," she said.
But last May, the hole began to grow again, and when Spangler noticed that the plywood board that DOT officials placed over the opening in 1980 was falling into the hole, she "decided to push until I got some action."
City workers only repeated what they had done two years earlier, placing another -- and larger -- board over the opening and conducting more dye tests. Spangler said she had endured too many delays and, on the advice of a city official, retained a lawyer. Her strategy, she said, was to take the problem to the mayor's office hoping for an answer.
Last week, three weeks after her attorney wrote to Mayor Marion Barry, DES investigated the Fourth Street area and concluded that the sinkhole was caused by a faulty underground Pepco line.
"We believe it is a Pepco problem," said William Johnson, director of DES. Johnson said they discovered the cause when city workers removed three manhole covers and found them filled with dirt and water from Spangler's front yard.
Pepco denies any responsibility. "We have examined the area and determined we are not responsible for the problem," said Carol McCall, a Pepco spokeswoman. Pepco blames the condition on a water main that collapsed one of the power company's manholes, and thus, "It's the responsibility of DES," McCall said.
Pepco officials said that although they will fix their damaged manhole it will not solve Spangler's problem, nor the cracks in the sidewalk caused by the broken water main. "If Pepco's manhole was damaged as a result of the broken water main we will seek reimbursement from DES," said McCall.
On Monday, Johnson, director of DES, confirmed that a water main had broken near Spangler's home. "If we're responsible for it, we'll fix it," he said. DES sent a crew to fill the sinkhole with dirt Monday afternoon.
Spangler said filling in the hole with dirt was just a cosmetic solution. "The remedy is far from complete," she said. "The erosion problem will still be there."
Those involved in Spangler's problem place the blame for the delay in getting any action on various sources, all within the city government. "There's been a lot of toe-dancing going on," said one city worker who wished to remain anonymous. "Somebody didn't do their job, that's all."
The city's Public Space and Records Office indicates that the city owns 25.5 feet of land from the street curb into Spangler's yard, including the sinkhole.
Johnson said he cannot explain why Spangler's problem wasn't resolved long ago or why DES workers didn't uncover the Pepco manholes two years ago.
Meanwhile, Spangler waits while the various groups involved try to figure out what caused the hole in her front yard and who will claim responsibility. Her reaction is perhaps a bit of understatement:
"I've been very patient up until now, but it's running thin."