Rock slide repair closes interstate for a day

By Vicki Hyatt | Jun 05, 2014
Photo by: Vicki Hyatt A crew with Amertech Slope Constructors works with crowbars and hand saws to clear debris from a slope above I-40 near Harmon Den.

I-40 traffic through the Pigeon River Gorge was suspended most of the day Thursday as loose debris was cleared from a rockslide area near the Tennessee-Haywood County border.

Both lanes reopened to traffic at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The targeted work area began about 120 feet above the roadway surface and was about 50 feet wide, said Jody Kuhne, regional geologic engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

While the rocks tumbling down the mountainside looked small, Kuhne said extreme caution is being taken during the work.

“A rock the size of your hand going 60 miles an hour is very likely to kill a person if it crashed through a car window and struck them,” he said.

That’s why both sides of the interstate are closed when scaling work is done. Even though the work is being done on the westbound lane, there were times that rocks crossed the concrete median barriers into the eastbound lane, those on site said.

The state contracted with Ameritech Slope Constructors, which provided a crew of five who worked suspended from ropes using crow bars to pry rocks loose and hand saws to trim trees that were in the way of clearing efforts.

Kuhne estimated 2,000 cubic yards of material would be hauled away by the state DOT crew once the scaling was finished.

Motorists were rerouted beginning at 4 a.m. Thursday, and the road was expected to reopen by midnight.

Mat Mullen, a geotechnical engineer for the state, said there is enough loose material in the area to keep a crew working for days to clear.

“But once it gets to a certain point, it will be a lot more stable,” he said. “It’s my job to work with the crew and stop them when they reach that point.”

A bullhorn blast is a signal for work to stop, and it sounded when either Mullen or Kuhne scale the mountain to check on progress. Both scamper up the steep rock slope with the ease of goats, which are known for their ability to navigate in rugged terrains.

Ralph Canady, the N.C. Department of Transportation division maintenance engineer, said initial assessments indicated a hard day’s work would be adequate to clear the danger area so the road could be reopened.

Art Hartzog, the Haywood County maintenance manager for NCDOT, had crews taking advantage of the interstate closure to cut trees and do other maintenance that is difficult to do with traffic speeding by.


A long history

Rock slides along the area of I-40 through Haywood County, known as “The Gorge” among locals, began occurring before the road was ever opened to the traveling public. Old-timers say the strong dynamite explosions used to blast a road through the mountainous area destabilized it. Others point to the geology of the area, which is prone to slides anyway.

Almost annually, the interstate is closed at some point while rock slide issues are addressed.

Heavy rainfall is a precursor to many slides, Kuhne said, as is the freeze-thaw cycle during the winter months. Now that trees along the roadside are more mature, their roots can also creep between gaps in rocks and cause a slide.

The slide area near Harmon Den being tacked Thursday was first noticed a week ago.

“The rock was the width of the shoulder, which is 12 feet,” Kuhne said, “and was as big as small car.”

Debris continued to trickle down the mountain, causing geologists to determine the site needed to be addressed.