[Update, 11:30a: DCRA has re-checked their records, and the site had all the required permits, and passed several inspections during the process. This appears to have just been a tragic accident, not a permitting process gone awry. OSHA has been brought in to investigate the incident. According to DCRA’s Gil, the trench had intended to be 7-8 feet deep, and was 5 feet deep when it collapsed.]
Late yesterday, a man working in a construction trench at a house on Evarts Street NE in Brookland was buried alive when the trench structure gave way. While DC Fire & EMS worked to save the man before he succumbed, the trench’s collapse was too serious. This morning, I spoke with DCRA about the site, and they revealed that the work the man was doing was unpermitted, and that an inspector had told the man to stop work earlier in the day. [please note correction above – ed.]
“We’ve had people do incredibly dangerous unpermitted work before, but I can’t recall last time it resulted in a person’s death,” said Helder Gil from DCRA this morning. DCRA had been on the site yesterday, and had issued a stop work order for the site, but unfortunately the man returned to work after the visit. Our thoughts are with the man’s family today.
Construction without permits in DC happens far too often, as it tends to be easier to ask for forgiveness than it does to ask for permission, however the dangers of these illegal construction projects are underscored by events like yesterday, or another event last year involving basement excavation that rendered two homes uninhabitable.
It’s a difficult process to undertake major construction or renovation in the District, where the permitting process itself can be a morass that continues without end, and requires numerous trips to city offices, and in many cases, the hiring of permit expediters at great expense. ANC 5C Commissioner Tim Clark said on Twitter last night, “The process encourages negligent practices…there’s no unified system between agencies, which creates confusion.”
Many candidates in the last election cycle had suggested that the city’s permitting bureaucracy, which often makes things difficult for small business owners, as well as homeowners seeking construction permits, might need an overhaul. In the wake of this senseless death, it’s hard to argue that the permitting process isn’t necessary, and necessarily detailed, but perhaps a reexamination is necessary to help make sure that more owners ask for permission, instead of forgiveness.