The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 31, 2013

DOT: W.Va. 3 will be closed up to 2 weeks

Hillside must also be checked for stability, other repairs made

BECKLEY — State road officials now say W.Va. 3 near Sundial, where several huge boulders slid off the mountain Friday evening, will be blocked longer than first thought.

Brent Walker, director of communications for the Department of Transportation, said Monday that workers set off one blast on the biggest rock and one on each of the smaller rocks Monday.

“We’re saying 10 days to two weeks,” Walker said. “No. 1, this is probably the largest intact rock-slide that we’ve ever experienced. While we’re certainly continuing to break up the rock and move it, we still have some other issues that we’ll have to deal with in order to make sure that road is safe.

“We have the hillside that we need to assess. It could continue to be unstable. We have the roadwork that we’ll need to do once we get the rock and debris off the road. We can see the damage to the road itself. That would include guardrail.

“There’s just more to opening that road than clearing the rock off the roadway. We just don’t know the extent of the instability in the hillside.”

There’s another spot about a mile down the road from where the rocks fell that locals say they’re worried about. Walker says the DOT will be looking at that spot soon.

“Any time we get folks who have noticed some debris or something on the roadway, we’ll take a look at it,” he said. “Unfortunately, very seldom can we predict these.

“We had a controlled blast on the northbound side of I-77 because we saw some debris that was causing us some concern. We were able to stabilize that because we were able to control that. The rest of the slips and slides around the state, we’re very seldom able to control or predict.”

Walker said they had been tipped off about the rocks before, but the rock was unpredictable.

“This isn’t a result of something that had gone ignored,” he said. “This was just simply something that happened probably as a result of some continued rainfall, the freeze-and-thaw process and everything else that every mountain in West Virginia is part of. It’s kind of the world we live in. We have slips and slides all around the state.

“People that drive those roads every day might be more in tune with their surroundings, but we have hundreds of these around the state that we have to contend with. You can’t predict them. I don’t think any of us within the Division of Highways has viewed anything that was something that was reported and then ignored.”

Walker said he couldn’t give a full guess, but he knows it’s going to be expensive to get everything back to normal.

“I couldn’t begin to speculate on the costs of those damages,” he said. “We’re looking at the process of removing that debris, and that’s over $300,000 right now. We couldn’t begin to speculate without knowing the damage to the roadway. It is the largest intact rock that we’ve had as part of a slide.

“It just continues to take time, but working with our contractor (Vecellio and Grogan) and the DEP, we feel like we’re making good progress in breaking up that rock. We’ll continue to break the rock and move it away before we determine our next step. Again, the instability of the hillside and the damage to the road are our two main concerns after we’re able to at least cut into some of that rock and tell how bad the damage is.”

Some media reports said the DOT was going to build a road around the obstacle until they could get them clear. Walker said this isn’t the case.

“We were talking about trying to gain some access to the top of the hill so we could take a look at everything,” he said. “It’s pretty steep. What we’re trying to do is build a road on top and just get a better view of the damage to the existing rock. That rock still goes back in for about 60 feet or so. The rock is still in the hillside.

“Right now our efforts are really focused on clearing that debris off the roadway and determining the damage to the existing roadway and to the remaining mountainside.”

- - -

With the rocks expected to block the road for two weeks, school officials say they’ve had to make a plan on how to get kids to class. School returns to session Thursday.

“The reality is that there aren’t very many options,” Raleigh County Superintendent Jim Brown said. “We’ve only been able to identify one and that is rerouting a couple of our buses onto Route 1. Unfortunately it’s going to result in some extended bus times, especially for our morning commute.

“It could be a significant increase. We expect that some students could be on the bus for as long as an hour and 15 minutes. It just depends on whether they’re on the front-end of the route or the back-end of the route.”

Brown said the director of transportation and his assistant spent the day Monday working on routes.

“They actually went out and drove each one of the routes that would be affected,” he said. “There are no back routes or alternate side roads. We even considered the possibility of using a shuttle to transfer students but that wasn’t a viable option. Really the only option we have is rerouting students across Route 1.”

Parents might decide to keep their kids home from school, but Brown said things are going to keep going as usual.

“This affects Bus 20, predominantly,” he said. “We have been able to create an alternate transportation schedule. We always respect parents’ right to make decisions. It’s in the best interest of their children, but we will be functioning at school as normal.”

The temporary schedule will be published in Wednesday’s Register-Herald.

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