Trois-Rivieres is in a different country with the majority of the 120,000 people in the region speaking a different language. Nestled halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, it sounds a world away from Connecticut. But the seven-hour drive north up I-91 shows some unsettling similarities.
Trois-Rivieres is dealing with a crumbling foundation crisis.
In Trois-Rivieres, the issue is known simply as “pyrrhotite.” Pyrrhotite is the same iron sulfide mineral that’s causing severe spider cracking and concrete deterioration in eastern Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
The city’s first known pyrrhotite issue popped up in the early 2000’s. Roughly three dozen homes were showing all of the signs of deterioration. It was determined that all 30 homes received their concrete aggregate from the same quarry.
The issue seemed contained a few years later when a larger, neighboring quarry asked an international testing firm to test their aggregate to be sure the iron sulfide mineral was not present in their rock.
“The engineer that did the testing said ‘it does contain iron sulfurs but we believe if you put it in solid concrete it should be ok,’” said homeowners attorney Ghislain Lavigne. “From there, the quarry sold the rocks to two cement companies.”
That is when Trois-Rivieres pyrrhotite crisis truly began.
“If they said ‘don’t use that rock,’ we would not be here except for a couple houses,” said Lavigne.
Experts the News 8 Investigators spoke with say almost every foundation placed between 1996 and 2008 within a twenty mile radius could be impacted.
“It’s all types of buildings built during this period that can have pyrrhotite,” said Michel Lemay, the vice president of Coalition Aide Aux Victims de la Pyrrhotite, a coalition that includes thousands of affected homeowners. “Institutional, residential, commercial, hospitals, public buildings, homes.”
Lemay is one of those homeowners. An architect, he is one of the founding members of the coalition of homeowners founded in 2009.
“Next year, it’ll be ten years since we started the coalition,” said Lemay. “We have repaired 2,000 houses at this time and we think 8,000 houses may be affected.
Lemay’s home is one of the houses that’s already had its foundation replaced. The impact it had on his life is similar to what we hear from homeowners in eastern Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
“You have big stress when you know you have pyrrhotite,” said Lemay. “You don’t know when it starts or when it ends. You live in a house lifted for some weeks and to repair all of the installation is takes easily a year.”
Lemay says there have been divorces, health scares, even suicides in the region that he points directly to the stress caused by the pyrrhotite issue.
Unlike Connecticut, Quebec has a five-year new home warranty program. If pyrrhotite is found in the concrete, it is eligible to be replaced through the warranty, even if cracks are not yet seen.
The warranty program covered Lemay’s $180,000 replacement cost.
If pyrrhotite is found in the concrete outside of that first five-year window, there are other avenues for reimbursement.
The provincial government, similar to our state legislature, set aside $52 million in aide for homes with pyrrhotite. The federal government chipped in $30 million.
Homeowners not covered under the warranty can apply for a $75,000 loan. It is repaid if the homeowners win a court settlement and it becomes a grant if they don’t win in court.
There are three significant court cases that are at different points of the process.
In one civil case that is under appeal, a judge ruled that the testing firm who gave the go-ahead to use the pyrrhotite filled aggregate is liable for the majority of the costs.
“The testing firm, according to the ruling, was found liable for 70 percent,” said Lavigne, a co-counsel in what was one the largest civil cases in Canadian history. “Then, 25 percent is split between the quarry and cement companies and the last 5 percent is on the home builders.”
Lavigne said in that case, anyone with a home built between 2003-2008 that tests positive for .23 percent or more of pyrrhotite will be covered under the settlement. That standard, however, was set by the judge, not science.
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He says it was the lowest percentage of pyrrhotite tested for any of the 862 homeowners involved in the joint action lawsuit. Lavigne says its possible that homes with deterioration could have levels below .23 percent. Those homeowners are known to be in the so-called “grey zone.” There is another pending suit that includes those homeowners.
The United States does not have any standard set for how much pyrrhotite should not be allowed in concrete. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented a report in Connecticut where it advises any levels of sulfur in aggregate above .1 percent should be rejected. The European standard for pyrrhotite levels tops off at .1 percent.
While the companies in the center of the problem are being held responsible in Quebec, they are not here in Connecticut.
A state investigation found the family that owns the concrete company and quarry in eastern Connecticut that supplied the pyrrhotite-filled aggregate is not liable for any damages.
Also, over the last 15 years, the state insurance department allowed insurance companies to change policy language specifically excluding this problem. It was done without giving policy holders or potential home buyers that the problem exists.
The state legislature has set aside more than $100 million dollars to go towards setting up a program and beginning to replace foundations. It will be run by a newly founded Captive Insurance Company. Applications from homeowners seeking assistance could begin to be submitted by the end of the year.
The Canadians feel they have a lot knowledge that could be useful for officials in Connecticut, if only they would reach out and ask for it.