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Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure

Will Kelsey, CEIE 531


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LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE PISCATAWAY DRIVE SLOPE


FAILURE
BY WILL KELSEY
CEIE 531
12/4/14

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
Page 2
The Consequences of a Slope Failure
On May 2, 2014, the Maryland Department of Public Works responded to complaints of a large
crack forming in a portion of Piscataway Drive.. Two days later, the Department of Public Works, the
State Highway Administration, and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission responded to reports
of worsening road damage, downed trees, and another water main break. It was not until then that the
problems on Piscataway Drive were diagnosed as a slope failure. On May 5, 2014, 28 homes
overlooking Piscataway Creek were evacuated (Prince George's County Department of Emergency
Management, 2014). In addition, Piscataway Drive was rendered unsafe for public use. The resulting
slope failure was 450 feet long; the failure plain was 4 to 20 feet below ground surface (Shu, Shanzhi,
Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong, 2014). Photograph 1 below shows Piscataway Drive
after the slow failure. The slope failure left many families without homes. How did this slope failure
happen? Who was responsible? What is the significance to geotechnical engineers in the Washington
D.C. Metropolitan area?

Photograph 1: Piscataway Drive after the slope failure on May 4th, 2014 (Goncalves, Delia, and Mola
Lenghi, 2014)
Piscataway Drive is a picturesque community located in Fort Washington, Maryland. The site of
the slope failure is a steep, 65 foot tall hill along Piscataway Creek. The slope was as steep as 1.5H/1V
in some places and displayed numerous surficial sloughing failures prior to May 2, 2014 (Shu, Shanzhi,
Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong, 2014). The week before the slope failure, over 4.5
inches of rain had fallen (WXSTATION Neighborhood Weather, 2014). Making matters worse, there
was no storm drainage system in the area. Six homes located on the tallest section of the hillside were
structurally compromised by the slope failure. These 6 homes have been deemed unsafe to live in. The
other 22 homes in the neighborhood were evacuated for indirect reasons that would most likely not be
discovered during a geotechnical investigation (Shu Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi
Acheampong, 2014). Pictured below is an example of an official notice that occupancy is unsafe and
prohibited at one of the 28 homes evacuated at Piscataway Drive.

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
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Photograph 2: A notice that occupancy is prohibited at one of the 28 evacuated homes on Piscataway
Drive ( Kristi King, 2014)

The 22 homes not located in the failure wedge are still structurally sound. However, the local
authorities have had difficulty supplying these homes with water and sewer service due to the
continually failing slope (Kristi King, 2014). The water and sewer lines were repeatedly repaired only
to break shortly afterward (Prince George's County Department of Emergency Management, 2014).
These 22 homes were deemed unfit for habitation until temporary above-ground water and sewer lines
were installed. The above-ground utility lines are likely to freeze during the winter (Arelis R.
Hernandez, 9/26/2014). In Figure 1, the homes structurally damaged by the slope failure are shown in
red and the homes indirectly affected are shown in pink.
Figure 1: Homes Affected by the Piscataway Slope Failure (Shu, Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and
Kofi Acheampong, 2014)

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
Page 4
The Geotechnical Investigation Begins
A local geotechnical engineering company was hired to perform a subsurface investigation of
the failure. The subsurface investigation consisted of 10 cone penetration and 15 split spoon test
borings, with depths ranging from 40 to 100 feet below ground surface. The subsurface investigation
revealed three distinct strata of soil. The first stratum consisted of low plasticity Sandy SILT (SM),
Clayey SAND (SC) and Poorly Graded SAND with Gravel (SP). Stratum I soils were of a generally
loose relative density. Stratum II underlain Stratum I and consisted of high plasticity Marlboro clay of a
generally medium stiff consistency. Stratum III underlies Stratum II soils and consisted of loose to very
dense Silty SAND (SM) and Sandy SILT (ML). Figure 2 shows the subsurface profile.

Figure 2: Subsurface Profile of Affected Area (Shu, Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi
Acheampong, 2014)
The project team performed a back-analysis of the slope using computer software. The backanalysis concluded that the most likely values for cohesion and residual internal friction angle for the
Marlboro clay stratum was 130 psf and 18 degrees, respectively. The water table level was determined
to be at five feet below ground surface. The project team determined that the slide most likely occurred
at the contact zone between the Stratum I soils and the Marlboro clay stratum. Marlboro clay is highly
impermeable and it is likely that after the intense rains a week prior to the slope failure, intense pore
pressure built causing the frictional resistance of the Marlboro clay to plummet (Shu, Shanzhi,
Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong, 2014).
The project team recommended three different approaches to repair the slope. The first option
involved extensive regrading of the slope, installation of two rows of drilled shaft cut-off walls, one
retaining wall and two rows of micropiles to stabilize the slope. The second option was to install two
rows of micropiles on the western side of the slope and one rows of drilled shafts on the eastern side of
the slope. The third option was similar to the second option, however only micropiles are used and only
requires limited regrading ( Shu, Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong, 2014). All
of these options are likely to cost millions of dollars.

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
Page 5
Warning Signs and Legal Liability
There were several advanced warnings that a slope failure was possible. Residents of
Piscataway Drive had long complained about land shifts on the hill that eventually failed. No action
was taken to stabilize the hillside or investigate the cause of the surficial sloughing. Geotechnical
engineers in Maryland have long known that Marlboro clay is susceptible to slope failures. In 1989,
the United States Geologic Survey rated the Marlboro and Potomac formations as the most susceptible
stratigraphic units to slope failure in Maryland. In the 1970's, a similar slope failure occurred only a
mile away in the Forrest Knolls community. In 1982, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning
Commission found that 24,000 acres of land in Prince George's County were in the Marlboro
stratigraphic region and required special attention during development (Arelis R. Hernandez,
5/22/2014). Given that the slope was steeper than 1:2, why were no geotechnical investigations
performed, despite the complaints that the slope was already failing in a geologic region known to be
susceptible to slope failures (Shu, Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong, 2014)?
The homes directly undermined by the slope failure were built predominantly in the late 1970's,
when geotechnical investigation requirements were less rigorous (PG Atlas: Prince George's County
GIS, 2014). Prince George's County has since put in place a special inspections program; however,
there are still no regulations requiring geotechnical subsurface investigations (Prince George's County
Third Party Inspections Program, 2013). In Prince William, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties in Virginia,
owners developing on sites mapped with problem soils are required to perform geotechnical studies of
their properties. (Public Facilities Manual, 2011; Design and Construction Manual, 2014; Facilities
Standards Manual, 2013). Although geotechnical studies are expensive, slope stability analysis can
predict slope failures and prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred at Piscataway Drive.
Furthermore, Arlington County in Virginia (across the Potomac River from Prince George's County)
contains marine clay and does not have rigid regulations in regards to geotechnical investigations. A
preventable slope failure could occur in Arlington County as well, but would be less likely in Prince
William, Loudoun or Fairfax Counties.
Shortly after the slope failure, authorities from Prince George's County argued that the County
bears no legal responsibility for the homes damaged by the slope failure as the homes and hillside are
private. Authorities argued that the County is only responsible for repairing Piscataway Drive.
Piscataway Hills residents have since pressured Prince George's County into agreeing to shore the
failing slope, buy the 6 homes compromised by the slope failure, and restore water and sewer service to
the other 22 homes to make them fit for habitation again (Arelis R. Hernandez, 9/22/2014). Although
no lawsuit was ever brought and the question was never determined in court, one might wonder how
much liability the County actually has in this situation given that the building permits for the homes
along Piscataway Drive were approved by Prince George's County. Residents maintain that the slope
failure was triggered by moisture from years of broken water mains in the area and poor storm
drainage, not the 4.5 inches of precipitation from the week prior to the slope failure. If the slope did fail
because of the broken utility lines owned by the County, this may make the County liable for all the
damage caused by the slope failure (Arelis R. Hernandez, 5/30/2014).

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
Page 6
Officials made several public relation gaffes after the slope failure. Public officials had
promised that the project team's preliminary geotechnical report would contain recommendations to
remediate the slope failure. The purpose of the geotechnical report was not clearly conveyed to the
public. The displaced residents were subsequently angered by the report. The report offered no time
tables, no estimated costs for repairing the slopes, and no estimate for how long repairs would take
(Arelis R. Hernandez, 5/22/2014). Prince George's County could have avoided angering the displaced
residents of Piscataway Drive by explaining the scope of the project team's preliminary geotechnical
report more clearly. The general public may not understand the difference between the fields of
construction and engineering, and should not be expected to understand the scope of a preliminary
geotechnical report without explanation.
Preventing Another Slope Failure
The slope failure at Piscataway Drive is a human tragedy. Although all 6 homes in the failure
plane remain unfit for occupancy, residents have returned to the 22 homes that are not in the failure
plane. The residents of the homes indirectly affected by the slope failure remain in a precarious
position. The homes on Piscataway Drive are now supplied by above-ground sewer and water lines,
which may freeze during the winter and leave 22 homes once again unfit for occupancy. These
residents are in need of a more permanent solution. The slope failure could have been foreseen if a
geotechnical investigation had been performed (Arelis R. Hernandez, 9/26/2014).
Is this tragedy a good opportunity for advocacy for geotechnical engineering services? Since
initially making moves to condemn all the homes evacuated after the slope failure, Prince George's
County has found itself beset by the homeowners affected by the slope failure. After many months of
negotiation, the County has agreed to provide $11 million dollars to repair the slope, while the State of
Maryland has agreed to provide another $2 million dollars (Arelis R. Hernandez, 9/26/2014). The slope
stability problems of Piscataway Hills would be obvious after a limited geotechnical investigation and
could have been prevented by either shoring the unstable slope or not developing the hillside. Perhaps
Prince George's County should make an investment now to develop a geotechnical review process
similar to the requirements of Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties.
About the Author
Mr. William B. Kelsey, EIT is a Staff Engineer at Geotechnical Consulting and Testing (GC&T). Mr.
Kelsey graduated from George Mason University in December, 2010 and is currently pursuing his
Master of Science degree in geotechnical engineering at George Mason University. Mr. Kelsey's
responsibilities include managing of construction testing projects. GC&T provides the following
services: compaction testing, steel reinforcement inspections, concrete testing and sampling, masonry
inspections and testing and sheeting and shoring inspections. Mr. Kelsey's responsibilities also include
retaining wall designs, ESA Phase I audits, helical pier design and slope stability assessments. Mr.
Kelsey may be reached at (703) 421-4000 for questions regarding the information presented in this
report.

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


Will Kelsey, CEIE 531
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Works Cited
1. Design and Construction Manual, 700 0 700-701-770.90 (Prince William County 2014).
Print.
2. Facilities Standards Manual, 0 6.000-6.100-6.250 (Loudoun County 2013). Print.
3. King, Kristi. "Piscataway Drive Remains Closed after Partial Road Collapse." Washington, DC
News, Traffic & Weather. WTOP, 5 May 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
<http://wtop.com/41/3617155/Piscataway-Drive-remains-closed-after-partial-road-collapse>.
4. Hernandez, Arelis R. "Torrential Rains Caused Piscataway Hills Landslide in Prince George's,
Report Says." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 May 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/rapid-torrential-rains-caused-piscataway-hills-landslidereport-says/2014/05/22/b3c17158-e1b8-11e3-9743-bb9b59cde7b9_story.html>.
5. Hernandez, Arelis R. "Displaced Prince George's County Residents Return Home despite
Warnings from County." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 May 2014. Web. 29 Nov.
2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/displaced-prince-georges-countyresidents-return-home-despite-warnings-from-county/2014/05/30/aaed39fe-e816-11e3-8f9073e071f3d637_story.html>.
6. Hernandez, Arelis R. "Md. Offers $2.2 Million Grant to Help Pr. George's Community Affected
by Landslide." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/md-gubernatorial-hopeful-brown-steps-upto-find-money-for-troubled-community/2014/09/26/d3ed98b2-3f4b-11e4-b03fde718edeb92f_story.html>.
7. Goncalves, Delia, and Mola Lenghi. "Slope Failure Evacuees Wait to Be Let Back into
Homes." Slope Failure Evacuees Wait to Be Let Back into Homes. WUSA, 6 May 2014. Web.
29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.wusa9.com/story/news/local/2014/05/05/fort-washington-slopefailure/8726979/>.
8. "PG Atlas : Prince George's County GIS." PGAtlas : Prince George's County GIS. Prince
Georges County, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.pgatlas.com>
9. Prince George's County Department of Emergency Management. Mandatory Evacuation of
Piscataway Drive in Fort Washington. YouTube, 05 May 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZj16bM2fGE>.
10. Prince George's County Third Party Inspections Program, 7 IV-E-VI (Prince George's
County 2013). Print.
11. Public Facilities Manual, 0 4-000-4-000-4-0706.1 (Fairfax County 2011). Print.

Lessons Learned from the Piscataway Drive Slope Failure


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12. Shu, Shanzhi, Kwabena Ofori-Awuah, and Kofi Acheampong. Draft Preliminary Geotechnical
Engineering Report, Piscataway Drive Slope Failure. Rep. Sparks, MD: KCI Technologies,
2014. Draft Preliminary Geotechnical Engineering Report, Piscataway Drive Slope Failure.
Prince Georges County. Web.
<http://www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/sites/ExecutiveBranch/Resources/Documents/Prelimi
nary%20GER%20Piscataway%20Drive%20Slope%20Failure.pdf>.
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