Widening crack near Texas cliff prompts worries

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Steve Mellgren's worries began when a chunk of land near his house crumbled down a cliff, leaving his neighbor's palatial home dangling above a lake before a demolition crew sent it tumbling into the water.

One year after the incident caught the national media's attention, Mellgren is on edge after watching a fissure gradually widen in his cliff-side backyard in Central Texas.

But in this gated community featuring majestic multimillion-dollar houses, concerns extend beyond Mellgren's property to the boaters below who for generations have been drawn to the popular waters of Lake Whitney. The cliff's brittle limestone facade has been deadly in years past and property owners are questioning whether authorities are doing enough to protect the public.

"It could go into the lake at any time and be a danger to anyone on the water," Mellgren told The Associated Press from his home about an hour south of Fort Worth.

Accounts of large rock chunks falling into the lake are not new - a consequence of the limestone composition that can more quickly deteriorate. Authorities have taken steps to inform people of the danger, including installing buoys in the lake to warn boaters to keep away.

But local and federal authorities say they can do little more than monitor threats of a collapse when it occurs on private property.

And it's still up to the public to use sound judgment. When the home of Mellgren's neighbor was about to collapse some 80 feet into the lake last June, gawkers drew their boats close to witness the spectacle.

Tom Hemrick, Hill County's emergency management coordinator, said boaters need to be cautious when they pull close to the cliff, noting that a fisherman several years ago was killed when an outcropping fell on him.

"We're very concerned about the safety along our lake," Hemrick said.

The fissure on Mellgren's land extends down 80 to 90 feet and does not immediately affect his home, Hemrick said, adding that it's difficult to determine whether any collapse is imminent. Complicating the situation are underwater caverns that could destabilize land above.

Mellgren said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be more involved in finding solutions.

The agency acknowledged in a statement that the crack presents a dangerous situation and will work to maximize safety, but added that "private property owners are responsible for correcting the problem."

Robert Webb is still dealing with his own problems after his property collapsed into the water last year only three years after he purchased it. He said his homeowner's policy does not include coverage for "ground movement" and has sued his insurer.

Webb estimates it will cost more than $100,000 to remove the debris and the home's foundation, which still dangles over the cliff. Demolition crews are wary that removing the foundation will trigger another collapse.

Both homeowners say they did not anticipate erosion would be a major issue when they purchased their properties.

"I was assured by everyone there when I bought the property that there had been engineering studies done and everything was safe," Webb said.

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