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KSL Investigates Costly Mistakes Causing St. George Regional Airport Shutdown

ST. GEORGE, Utah – The runway at St. George’s Regional Airport was built to last 20 years. But on May 28th, construction equipment began chewing up that runway for a complete rebuild. It had been in place just eight years.

Bumps and cracks started to appear shortly after St. George’s new airport opened. After years of patchwork, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a permanent fix.

A KSL Investigation found engineering decisions made at the time of construction in 2008 left the runway vulnerable to the blue clay it was built over. Yet, KSL’s review of hundreds of pages of engineering documents show the airport did not place 15 feet of non-swellable soil between the clay and the base of the runway, as called for in the design. The airport also did not install FAA recommended drains under the pavement.

Those design recommendations are being followed this time: Construction crews are digging down 17 feet, replacing the clay with good soil, installing a moisture barrier and drain piping before repaving the runway.

Shutdown Impact

The four-month shutdown will wreak havoc on the airport’s Fixed Base Operator, Justin Hansen.

“Over $420,000 in gross loss,” said Hansen.

Justin Hansen, the Fixed Wing Operator at St. George Regional Airport shows KSL Investigator Mike Headrick a bump in the cement outside a hanger

With no planes landing, Hansen can’t sell fuel or repairs, the bulk of his business.

“That’s a third of your year out of business, so it’s a major, major deal,” said Hansen.

Bump History

“You have no idea how bad it stinks,” said airport manager Rich Stehmeier.

Stehmeier said the airport began investigating a one-inch crack on the runway’s shoulder shortly after it opened.

“As the years went by, we noticed the heaving start to move off the shoulder, into the runway,” said Stehmeier.

The engineers came back and diagnosed the problem. The blue clay underneath the runway was getting wet and forming bumps on the surface as it swelled.

Dixie State University Geology Professor Janice Hayden said that blue clay is bad to build on.

“That will heave up your house and crack that apart in a short time,” said Hayden.

The airport knew blue clay was underneath the runway. But Stehmeier said drainpipes were not installed under the runway originally, despite being recommended in one engineer’s report.

“Not a lot of water, doesn’t rain a lot, we’re in the desert, this probably should be sufficient,” said Stehmeier.

He did not know why builders did not dig down 15 feet originally.

“I don’t really know, I mean, I couldn’t answer that question for you,” said Stehmeier.

Stehmeier said there’s no one blame for this problem other than mother nature, and the FAA agreed to pay for the repairs because it found the original construction was built to the approved plans.

City Councilman Ed Baca said that’s key.

“We’ve met all the standards that needed to be met, and they were appropriate,” said Baca.

Baca said he wouldn’t call the original construction a mistake. But he does believe the city was constrained by the original budget to build the airport.

“Money is always an issue,” said Baca.

None of these answers sit well with Hansen.

“I don’t see how it could, [how] nobody could have known there’d be an issue with all the problems with the soils out here,” said Hansen.

The project will cost $26 million, paid by FAA grants funded through taxes on airplane tickets and airplane fuel. The city is also providing matching funds with taxes on airplane tickets and an infrastructure grant from the Trump administration.

The airport is scheduled to reopen September 26. Until then, flights have been canceled or rerouted to other airports.

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