Crumbling concrete causing headaches for Mass. homeowners

EAST LONGMEADOW, Mass. — The American dream is turning into a nightmare for some Massachusetts homeowners.

The concrete basement walls of their homes are crumbling, usually more than a decade after being originally placed.

Contractors say jacking the house up, ripping out the existing concrete and replacing it is the only option. The cost goes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and homeowners tell FOX25 that insurance companies deny their claims.

“It’s indescribable. Sleepless nights. Monetary expenses. Not knowing if we're doing the right thing,” says Bill Johnson of East Longmeadow. “Where do you go? How do you move forward? How much money do you throw at this thing?”

Johnson and his wife Pam first noticed the unique horizontal and spider cracking on their concrete basement walls in the late 1990’s. A contractor and son of the town building inspector, Johnson brought everyone he could through his home - from local contractors to town and state officials – but no one could explain why the concrete was deteriorating so rapidly only 15 years after the home was built.

“We brought everyone in that we knew in the trades and we knew a lot of people,” said Johnson, who still finds it hard to talk about. ”We brought them through here and no had ever seen anything like it.”

With no answers and no help from their insurance carrier, the Johnson's used more than 60-thousand dollars from their daughter’s college account to hire an engineer to fix it. They did not replace the existing foundation, but built a second inner wall to help keep the home from collapsing. Ten years later, the foundation still stands but they still worry it will impact them if they ever decide to put their home on the market.

“We know the correct fix would be to raise this house up, rip the old foundation out and put in a new one but back then we were getting quotes for $120,000-$130,000,” said Johnson. “We didn’t have the money.”

In the next few years, the Johnson’s learned they weren’t alone.

At least a dozen homeowners from Connecticut and Massachusetts came forward with the same problem. All lived in homes built between the early 1980’s through the late 1990’s. All said they had coverage claims denied by their insurance companies.

And there was one more connection between them all.

“The common denominator is the concrete was supplied by JJ Mottes,” Johnson said.

JJ Mottes Concrete and Septic Supply Company is a family owned business operating since 1947 in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. The company plant sits just minutes from the Massachusetts border in northeastern Connecticut.

Homeowners, contractors and public officials tell FOX25 the crumbling foundation issues are only known to exist with concrete supplied by JJ Mottes.

Now, 15 years after the first group of affected homeowners discovered their problems, contractors and public officials say likely hundred, likely thousands of homes in Northeastern Connecticut and Western Massachusetts have the problem. Contractors and homeowners say the homes were built in the early 1980’s through the late 1990’s.

More than 200 Connecticut homeowners reported the problem to the state, but experts believe the number is much higher because many attorneys tell their clients not to report the problem. Also, homeowners fear their insurance will be dropped or their home condemned if the extent of their damage is discovered.

FOX25 Investigates confirmed with former JJ Mottes employees that the company served Massachusetts customers from Springfield to Charlton. FOX25 Investigates also discovered homeowners in at least six towns have or have had the problem. They are East Longmeadow, Monson, Palmer, Ware, Wales and Hampden.

Dean Soucy, a contractor who’s replaced failing foundations in the region for close to twenty years says the horizontal and spider cracking is very unique and not to be confused with common vertical settlement or shrinkage cracking.

He says the cracks start as small hairline horizontal cracks, often in the corners of the basement. Over time, they start to spread rapidly, growing wider and eventually pushing the house up off the foundation.

“It’s almost like a time bomb that automatically starts and twenty years later this is what you're going to have,” said Soucy as he showed the issue at a home he’s about to work on in Willington, CT.  “When you start to see the cracks going sideways,” said Soucy. “They're little lines and go in every direction for no reason at all.”

After first being exposed last summer, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy called for the Attorney General’s Office to assist the Department of Consumer Protection in a civil demand investigation to determine if the state’s unfair trade practices were violated.

This week, preliminary scientific results from that investigation determined an iron sulfide mineral called pyrrhotite is partially to blame. Research suggests if the mineral is in the stone aggregate and mixed with concrete it could have a devastating effect. Over time, air and water seep into the pourous concrete causing the pyrrhotite to swell and expand. It lead to the cracks, pushing the house up and eventually could lead to the failure of the foundation.

The state report says pyrrhotite is the one common denominator in all of the affected concrete tested. JJ Mottes acknowledged the mineral is found in the Becker’s Quarry in Willington, Ct where they’ve retrieved their aggregate for decades. The same family that owns JJ Mottes Concrete also owns Becker’s Quarry.

The company refutes that materials in their concrete is to blame. They cite a 2003 judgement in Connecticut finding they were not guilty of product liability and assert the issue stems from installers using too much water when the concrete was originally poured. That case also found the statute of limitations holding the company liable had expired.

In a statement to FOX25, John Patton, the secretary and spokesperson for JJ Mottes said:

“As we have said for months and the American Concrete Institute states in their Manual of Concrete Practice, the durability of concrete is dependent upon proper installation - no matter how strong the concrete is, if the installation is flawed, it’s possible the concrete will not last. This is why we, as a company which provided concrete for thousands of homes in Western Massachusetts during this time period, continue to support an unbiased and comprehensive investigation into these foundation issues – including how the materials were placed and installed, in addition to remedial actions – so that homeowners can get the answers they deserve and meaningful help with solutions. Unfortunately for our business, due to ongoing adverse publicity around this issue which we continue to believe has been both unfair and unjustified, it no longer makes financial sense for us to continue to operate and we have leased our facility and equipment to another concrete company for the remainder of 2016.”

How many Massachusetts homeowners are living with this issue is still unknown, but Bill Johnson believes the only way to find a solution is if the speak up.

“People have to band together,” said Johnson. “I think there’s thousands of people out there with this problem.”

If you believe you have this issue or have had the issue, email fox25investigates@fox25.com. Tell us the year your home was built, your address, who your builder was and if you know, who supplied the concrete. Also send any pictures you may have of the crumbling foundation.