Harrisburg sinking: Pennsylvania's capital is riddled with sinkholes
  • Pennsylvania's state capital Harrisburg is struggling with 41 massive sinkholes running as wide as 50 feet
  • The city is too broke to fix them as it deals with ongoing fiscal problems
  • It could cost nearly half of Harrisburg's $50 million budget to permanently fix the holes
Officials in Pennsylvania's state capital are dealing with an abysmal issue they can't afford to fix: 41 massive sinkholes throughout the city as wide as 50 feet and as deep as a typical grave.

The mix of loose sandy soil and century-old leaking water pipes under Harrisburg's streets have made the area susceptible to such holes, city officials say.

But the city is too broke to replace many of the aging pipes and repave its roads as it deals with ongoing budget woes and the looming threat of bankruptcy, according to media reports.

The first of the recent sinkholes perforating Harrisburg was reported on New Year's Eve when a chasm measuring an estimated 50 feet long and eight feet deep swallowed a neighborhood block, damaging water and gas pipes and forcing more than a dozen residents to evacuate their homes, The Patriot-News reported last month.

That neighborhood happens to be one of Harrisburg's poorest districts and the unexpected sinkhole added to the financial dilemmas hitting low-income residents living in a broke city.

'I thought the world was ending,' said one resident, Sherri Lewis, 42, who recently told the Wall Street Journal that she heard a rumbling on December 31 that sounded like fireworks.

Since that night, more holes have opened up throughout the 50,000-person city.

Crews work on a sinkhole on North Front Street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Friday, January 4, 2013
Another resident, Sharaun Davis, 33, told The Patriot-News in January that she had to move her family to a hotel because construction on the hole that formed on her block was causing her home to shake.

'I'm hearing literally the dry wall cracking,' she said. 'We've had to change our whole life.'

In addition to the rising number of sinkholes, the struggling city has been unable to fix a sewage treatment plant that has been dumping toxic waste into the Susquehanna River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

'We can't do anything right now because no one will lend to us,' William Cluck, chairman of the city agency that oversees the treatment facility, told the Journal.

Harrisburg, which is in default on its debt, is unable to tap into the municipal-debt market, which cities and states use to finance their infrastructure, including bridges, roads and tunnels.

After city officials rejected a state-sponsored financial recovery plan in July 2011, Harrisburg 'was briefly transformed into the Greece of Pennsylvania,' the New York Times wrote in an article published at the time.

The city's financial woes stem in part from a failed plan to borrow $350 million to upgrade an enormous trash incinerator. That plan fell through in 2010 after the federal government blocked the effort due to the threat of toxic air pollution.

Stephen Reed, Harrisburg's former Democrat mayor who ran the city for 28 years, brought it to near bankruptcy as the more than $500 million in bond deals he oversaw to finance development projects drained the city's coffers, according to Bloomberg.

It would cost nearly half of Harrisburg's $50 million budget to permanently fix the 41 sinkholes, one city engineer recently estimated.