By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
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Highway crews and contractors who have labored for a week to clear a major rock slide off the northbound lanes of Interstate 77 saw success Wednesday evening when those lanes were finally reopened to traffic.
Tons of boulders and debris spilled March 20 over the lanes between the three and four mile markers north of the East River Mountain Tunnel. Traffic was rerouted at Exit 1 to U.S. Route 460. Travelers then took that highway to Princeton where they could resume their northward journeys on I-77.
The division of highways crews had hoped to have the highway reopened in time for Easter weekend, but this estimate was moved up Wednesday after a senior engineer inspected the hillside, said Tom Camden, district manager for the Division of Highways. Plans initially called for opening that section of the highway to traffic at 7 p.m. However, crews were able to get motorists on their way by 6:45 p.m.
The shoulder of the highway along the rock slide’s area was closed and blocked by a barricade.
“That’s in case any more rocks fall, to prevent them from coming into the road,” Camden said.
Crews have also been cleaning away soil that came down with the stone. Camden thanked local fire departments for bringing their fire engines to the site and hosing mud off the pavement.
Boulders the size of cars and refrigerators blocked the highway after the rock slide occurred. The division of highways still did not know exactly how much stone and debris slid down the hillside. Engineers still did not have any totals Wednesday.
“We’re still in the process of calculating the cost and the amount of material that has been removed,” Camden said.
The goal was to remove as much loose material as possible from the hillside.
“We ran into a lot of shale that tends to fracture, and we ran into a lot of clay,” he said.
Camden stated that in his experience, the I-77 rock slide is the largest he has encountered. Highway crews are constantly watching for potential slides.
“We can credit our night crew and our interstate crew for identifying this problem and taking immediate action,” Camden said. “One of the things that triggered this one in terms of discovering it is that they kept finding rocks in the road. They make regular patrols up and down the road, especially this time of year, watching for anything that could create a hazard.”
Objects ranging from dead deer to junk are found regularly. Crews sometimes find luggage that fell off cars or trucks. Theses obstacles can be dangerous if a vehicle going 70 mph hits them. Even bags of trash that might not otherwise damage a vehicle can be hazardous because motorists will try to dodge them.