As 4-month airport closure takes effect, a complicated tale of blue clay and bureaucracy comes to light

File photo of airplane at St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, Aug. 21, 2018 | File photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE — A final takeoff on St. George Regional Airport’s deteriorating runway Tuesday night ushered in the beginning of a four-month closure in order to address, once and for all, soil issues that have plagued the runway since 2012.

St. George Regional Airport, May 24, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

In the eight years since it opened, the airport has burgeoned significantly, with the number of yearly passengers more than doubling and the choice of destinations tripling. This upward trajectory has been the result in no small part to a city government intent on making the airport a major transportation hub. And while the city of St. George has been busy implementing this “sky is the limit” philosophy, Southern Utah’s geological forces have been working just as actively to put a wrench in those plans.

An extensively degenerated runway resulting from what geologists call “aggressive” blue clay has necessitated a massive repair project that will require the airport to be closed to all private and commercial flights for its duration.

During the closure from May 29 to Sept. 26, most of the existing runway will be torn out and replaced using a variety of techniques to address the blue clay issues in an effort to ensure a durable runway that will last for decades to come.

In the meantime, however, multiple airlines will have their operations halted, airport employees will be out of work, the city will have lost a significant revenue stream and those traveling by air will need to find alternate routes to and from Southern Utah.

Given the closure’s impact on so many people, St. George News set about investigating how the airport got to this point in the first place.

Ancient geological forces at work

Within about a year of its opening, airport operators began noticing cracks on portions of the runway. The cracks measured about 4 feet deep and 1 inch wide running parallel on the west shoulder of the runway and on the duct bank that crosses the taxiway.

This archive photograph shows cracking on the duct bank of the taxiway at St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, 2012 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

As the city went about investigating these gashes, geotechnical engineers from St. George-based Landmark Testing & Engineering bored holes into the ground in an effort to find out what was causing the cracks.

“They knew there was blue clay down there, but what they didn’t know was how it would react,” St. George Regional Airport manager Rich Stehmeier said. “They found out it wasn’t just a huge plume of blue clay; what they found is that it’s very striated.”

The striated clay formations represent various eras of sediment deposits dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. The clay deposits stretch about 500 feet in depth beneath the surface of the soil.

During the airport’s original construction, the first layer of clay was removed and the area of the runway was refilled with backfill and structural material before it was paved over with asphalt.

Graphic shows the geological makeup of the soil beneath the runway at St. George Regional Airport | Image courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

However, when that portion of clay was removed, the striated clay formations directly beneath it that were previously shielded from groundwater runoff were now susceptible to moisture generated by rainfall.

“The theory is this: We took off the top layer of that clay that had expanded and contracted, and we left the layer in there that had never seen that water,” St. George Public Works Director Cameron Cutler said. “If it had 100 years to let it move, it would find its equilibrium again, and the clay down underneath it wouldn’t move again.”

Cutler said a single quarter-inch storm has the potential to dump over 200,000 gallons of water on the affected portion of the runway.

“Where does the rain go? It percolates under the ground, and that’s where we’re having the issues,” Cutler said. “You’ve got 200,000 gallons of water running off that runway, and it’s got to go somewhere.”

This archive photograph shows erosion of the berm along the drainage swale at St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, 2012 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

In the context of the runway, this resulted in cracks and bumps in the asphalt as rainwater seeped into the various types of clay, which expand at different rates.

In consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration and an engineering firm, the city went about performing repairs on those first cracks in 2012.

While the initial repair work was successful in addressing those first cracks, Stehmeier said over the next 3-4 years, additional cracks and asphalt heaving began to migrate toward the middle of the runway.

By the fall of 2016, the runway issues began affecting aircraft, making for bumpy landings and takeoffs.

In a “Daily Operations Log” report dated Aug 28, 2016, an airport employee informed management of the severity of the issue:

I think with all the rain that we have had the runway is getting a lot worse than it was a few months ago and moving closer to the center line. I drove the asphalt seam just west of the center line at 60 MPH and there is about 5 pretty good size bumps between A2 and A4. I don’t remember it being this bad near the center line and may need some attention soon!

By this time, the city had recruited the services of St. George-based engineering consultant Jviation to recommend repair options, and crack-sealing measures continued throughout the year.

Pilots also started taking note of the bumps upon landing, as revealed in the airport’s weekly report dated Feb. 5, 2017: “Two pilot complaints over the bumps in the runway. One was quite voiceful.”

In a risk management assessment written by the city’s claims manager, one pilot even appeared to complain of damage to their plane’s landing gear.

“The pilot arrived at SGU, landed, fueled, and left only to return because of dangerous winds near Cedar City,” the report states. “Upon return the pilot reported that he noticed damage to the wheel fairing when securing the aircraft down, and had experienced 2 bumps in the runway after what he felt was a normal landing.”

Initial fix relies on continual patching

In May 2017, the St. George City Council approved a $213,433 patching project using funds accrued from the sale of land at the site of the old airport where Dixie Technical College now sits.

Within months of the repair project’s completion, cracks began to manifest on other portions of the runway, at which point the FAA agreed to step in financially and issued a $1.2 million grant for more substantial patching work. The city also contributed $137,250 toward the project paid out of the airport’s passenger facility charge fund, which comprises fees paid by passengers on each flight.

Graphic shows the progression of heaving on the runway at St. George Regional Airport from 2016-2017 | Image courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

At this point, the city and FAA were still banking on the patching work to resolve the issue. During a St. George City Council work meeting held Sept. 12, 2017, then-City Manager Gary Esplin said the repair projects would “hopefully” carry the airport through three- to five-year intervals for the next 20 years, at which point a total runway replacement would be an “easier sell” for the FAA.

Cutler said the patching work in 2017 successfully addressed the runway issues on the affected portions as planned.

“The patches haven’t failed,” he said. “Patching occurred in 2017 for areas on the runway that had the most significant movement. It was determined later that other parts of the runway were continuing to move, so we patched those the next year.”

Cutler explained that all the cracks in the pavement continuously absorbed water, delivering even more runoff to the expanding clay below.

“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “Once it starts going, it’s hard to stop it, and that’s what we’ve seen.”

In August 2018, another patching project was approved by the City Council in the amount of $403,680.50, with the FAA once again footing 90% of the cost.

Permanent fix comes into focus

While the patching projects provided a reliable fix for affected portions of the runway, it became evident that cracking and heaving would continue on other portions almost as quickly as the patch work was completed.

Stehmeier said FAA officials came to the airport in March 2018 to get an idea of the severity of the issue.

“We put them in a truck and said, ‘You know what? You want to see the bumps? We’re going to take you down the runway and show you the bumps,’” Stehmeier said.

Runway at St. George Regional Airport with visible patching work performed due to heaving and cracking, St. George, Utah, May 2019 | Photo courtesy of St. George Regional Airport, St. George News

They were driven down the side of the runway where the bumps are the worst going 80 mph.

“They bounced their head on the ceiling of the truck,” Stehmeier said.

That trip down the runway apparently convinced the FAA personnel that the problem needed to be fixed permanently as soon as possible.

As the city and the FAA looked at repair and replacement solutions, three ideas that Stehmeier describes as “tried-and-true” fixes were ultimately chosen.

In one part of the solution, about 5,400 linear feet of the problematic portion of the runway would be excavated and refilled with stable material 17-feet-deep, the depth at which geological pressure keeps asphalt from swelling more than an inch.

The next fix would involve installing a 5-foot-deep water plug with conditioned clay that’s used in landfills to prevent seepage of liquid, water or otherwise, into lower soil depths.

The last fix would involve the installation of a petroleum-based impermeable water membrane over the runway with drainage pipes to prevent water along the edges from seeping into the soil.

Taking into account the massive plume of clay below and Southern Utah’s climate and geography, Cutler said FAA engineers determined these three fixes would help ensure that the runway doesn’t run into similar issues in the future.

A plane gates at St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, Aug. 21, 2018 | File photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

The herculean task of performing all three of these projects, particularly the 17-foot excavation, would require four months to complete at a cost of approximately $26.2 million.

Confident in the solution, St. George’s elected officials signed off on the project in September 2018, which will be performed by St. George-based JP Excavating and managed by Jviation, with oversight throughout the duration of the project by the FAA.

“I think when you’re talking about the FAA doing this for a second time, I can’t imagine that they – as well as all the other engineers involved – weren’t looking at this very, very closely this time where we know this is very aggressive clay,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said.

Pike said he’s confident that the project will fix the runway issue for good.

“It certainly feels like the FAA is doing pretty much everything they could,” he said. “I’m not really sure what else would be recommended or that could be recommended.”

A long, costly endeavor

The FAA is paying for 91% of the cost of the project, with St. George’s share in the project coming to approximately $2.4 million, all of which will come from passenger facility charges.

Among the heftiest costs of the project are pavement, estimated to cost approximately $5 million, and the water barrier, which is priced at $4.5 million. Jviation’s payout for design plans and construction management comes to $2.5 million.

However, the bulk of the project’s cost will be the excavation, which will be performed by JP Excavating’s crews working 24 hours per day.

JP Excavating Project Manager Scot Petctol told St. George News he is confident that the project will be completed on time.

“Our whole company will team up for this project,” he said. “We usually have several jobs going on through the community at one given time. This one will be a singular point of focus for the duration of the project.”

JP Excavating completed several other construction projects for the city prior to winning the bid for the runway repair project.

“We’ve been very pleased with our working relationship with them, his attention to detail,” Pike said, referring to JP Excavating president and owner Judd Palmer. “I mean, he has been really in this, which is very comforting to me.”

The company has been working to prepare for the project since the bid was awarded in September 2018, arranging for labor and equipment, relocating a service vehicle road and purchasing the moisture barrier.

While the project is poised to be completed on schedule by a proven contractor, the fact that St. George has ended up in a situation that requires its airport to be closed to all commercial flights for four months has been a major point of frustration for the many people affected.

Flight schedule at St. George Regional Airport terminal, May 24, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

“It’s going to be felt by a lot of people,” Pike said of the closure’s impact.

In addition to a loss of revenue for SkyWest and the airport’s carriers — Delta, United, American Airlines and Allegiant Air — the city of St. George will also be losing a steady revenue stream that has grown substantially alongside the airport’s passenger count.

The airport’s Fixed Base Operator, which provides fuel and mechanical service to private and commercial planes, will also be out of commission for the duration.

All of these entities comprise individual employees who will all be affected in some way, financially or otherwise.

“We take the economic impact caused by the airport closure very seriously. While no one is happy about this necessary repair, it’s vital to our region’s long-term viability and would be much more harmful to our economy if not completed,” St. George Economic Development Director Shirlayne Quayle said. “We sincerely appreciate the patience and understanding expressed by residents and businesses alike who know the short-term inconvenience is worth the long-term benefit.”

This short-term inconvenience will be felt to varying degrees, depending on the type of business or employee affected.

In the case of city-employed airport workers, Stehmeier said they will be “busier than they are now” as they assist with airport expansion and improvement plans, which include hanging fans for temperature control in the terminal, sealing, coating and repainting the parking lot, redoing asphalt and adding 60 feet of terminal ramp for bigger airplanes.

Airport employees check travelers’ bags at St. George Regional Airport, May 24, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

SkyWest employees whose jobs are not applicable during the closure will have several options, SkyWest Corporate Communications Manager Wes Horrocks said, including a temporary transfer to Cedar City Regional Airport where an additional daily flight to Salt Lake City has been added during construction.

Others have the option to take a three-month unpaid vacation and return in early September for training work. One such employee, a ticketing agent, told St. George News she would be taking the vacation time but is only doing so because it is financially feasible for her. She said coworkers who can’t weather months of unpaid vacation have mostly secured alternate employment.

The city will also be foregoing lease payments from the Fixed Base Operator for a full year in an effort to sustain it and its employees during the closure.

Outside of airport operations, the closure has complicated how some Southern Utah companies conduct business travel, such as Rose Development, whose owner, James Rose, said he and other employees use the airport “all the time” to travel to and from Phoenix and will now be forced to find out-of-the-way alternatives.

From a tourism perspective, the airport will no longer be an option for travelers seeking the most direct route to Southern Utah’s outdoor recreation destinations, such as Zion National Park.

Washington County Tourism Office Director Kevin Lewis said the county is working with its partners to promote other transportation options, including Cedar City Regional Airport or McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. St. George Shuttle and St. George Express will also continue to offer service to and from the airports in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

“The good news is that the closure will happen during the summer months which are the slowest months for air travel to the area,” Lewis said.

Who’s to blame?

At a cost of approximately $160 million, 90% of which was paid for by the FAA, the St. George Regional Airport opened in January 2011 after undergoing more than a year of construction by two separate contractors.

In the years leading up to the project, engineers performed soil analyses looking for stable ground on which to build the runway, which now regularly lands Boeing 737s and, occasionally, larger aircraft, up to Boeing 767s.

Given its share in the cost, the FAA was responsible for signing off on construction and engineering plans, which had been in the drafting stages for about half a decade before construction began.

Pike, who was a city councilman at the time when design plans for the airport were being finalized, said every effort was made to “do it right the first time” and build a quality product.

I certainly felt at the time that everyone was trying to recommend and do the best thing for the project. Never was there any discussion about, ‘Hey, we could do this cheaper if we did it this way. Or it would take longer if we did it this way?’ I don’t think anyone was trying to short-change the process. I can’t really imagine anyone — engineer, contractor — regardless of who they worked for, whether it’s an FAA person, a St. George city person or a consultant.

In 2007, years before construction began, a 366-page “Geotechnical Investigation Report” was completed with an exhaustive study of soil conditions at the site of the airport, including such topics as seismicity, groundwater, subsurface conditions and swell potential. The report also offered in-depth recommendations on how to go about filling after excavation and installing drainage and moisture protection.

This archive photograph shows examples of fractured sandstone in excavation at the south end of the site of the future St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, circa 2007 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

Noted throughout the report is the fact that the engineers were offering recommendations based on FAA guidelines.

“The FAA received the geotechnical analysis and engineer’s recommendation, reviewed the information, and accepted the sponsor’s certification that the plans met the FAA specifications,” said Allen Kenitzer, FAA northwest mountain regional public affairs manager.

Kenitzer told St. George News that the city and their consultants ultimately have responsibility for any problems that arise after construction.

With the runway having failed in well under a decade, the FAA told the city in 2017 that in order to receive additional financial support for runway repairs, it would have to prove that all the recommendations the agency signed off on were followed during the original construction.

The city hired an engineering firm that had nothing to do with the original project to perform an independent audit of the runway construction. After three months of research, the firm, Colorado-based Rood & Associates, delivered its findings.

In its report dated Dec. 29, 2017, the firm notes that the initial grading and drainage contract was awarded to Phoenix-based R.E. Monks Construction and later completed by St. George-based Quality Excavation.

The report states that the contractors completed more passing soil density tests than were required for the overall project.

“Whenever density tests failed, the contractor was required to remove all material above the tested level and re-compact until densities met specifications,” the report states. “These reports confirm that over-excavation of unsuitable materials were directed in the field.”

The report concludes that the city did, indeed, get what it paid for from R.E. Monks and Quality Excavation:

The finish grading and drainage project appears to have been completed in full accordance with the design plans and specifications. All documented variances from plan quantities are well within reason for a project of this size and complexity. … The confirmation of pavement thickness exceeding the design validates that the construction met the design requirements.

Stehmeier said the FAA agreed to finance the bulk of the repair project based on the report’s findings.

Neither the FAA nor the city of St. George considered legally pursuing the original engineers, Pike said.

“If we chose to go after the engineers that made the recommendations and developed the specifications, both the FAA and us would really have to be of the same opinion that that would be something that’s worth doing.”

St. George Regional Airport terminal, May 24, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

On reflection of the original project, Pike said he believes the engineers were sincere in their recommendations.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t an exact science,” Pike said. “You can drill a lot of test holes and do a lot of analysis, but in the end, sometimes you’re still just making estimations and recommendations, and sometimes you’re going to be right, and sometimes, you’re not.

“I take the opinion that people were giving their best estimates and best-faith recommendations and it turned out to not be enough.”

Ultimately, it was the FAA as the primary financial stakeholder that had final say on project approval and chose to follow the recommendations in the original engineers’ soil analysis.

When asked whether the agency looked at any alternate soil analyses, Kenitzer said “The FAA does not know of any other soil analyses performed at the time.”

Pike said it is to the FAA’s credit that it has stepped up to pay for the runway repair project, given its role in signing off on the original construction plans.

“I think they’re showing their responsibility by agreeing to make that payment with, frankly, no fight on our part,” he said. “In other words, we didn’t have to point fingers at them. I think they’ve shown they’re willing to help in a huge way in a very unfortunate situation.”

The city plans to provide the public with continual updates on the repair project’s progress at the airport’s website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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