By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Precautions were taken Tuesday to safeguard motorists driving past a cliff overlooking a section of Interstate 77 near Bluefield.
Rocks fell from the cliff Monday afternoon at the three-mile marker. The stones did not roll onto the highway, but the slow lane was closed as a precaution, said Tom Camden, supervisor for District 10 of the state Department of Highways.
“Technically, we just had a number of rocks more than usual,” Camden said Tuesday. “That area has always been prone to that to some degree. We are just trying to be cautious and avoid what happened back in the spring.”
In March, a major rockslide near the three-mile marker closed both northbound lanes of Interstate 77 for several days. Traffic had to be detoured onto U.S. Route 460 until the debris was cleared away.
Warning signs and barriers remained in place Tuesday. A geologist from the Department of Highway’s Charleston office was scheduled to visit the site and help develop a plan to “at least stabilize the hillside,” Camden said.
The geologist conducted a visual inspection, but no core samples or other probing was conducted. Camden said he did not know when a report would be ready. Meanwhile, the department will continue to safeguard motorists. Road crews will monitor the hillside.
“We have our night shift in place. We will continue to monitor it during the day as well as the night,” he added. “We’re trying to take every precaution we can at the moment until we know more about the situation.”
Recent weather conditions could have contributed to the situation along Interstate 77, he stated. When water seeping into a cliff freezes and becomes ice, it can break stone.
“I’d say one thing that made the problem a little worse lately is that we’ve had a lot of freezing and thawing. When you have that, it tends to make these situations worse,” Camden said.
Problems with rock falls and mudslides are common in the region. “I think it is a consequence of the area that we live in. We usually don’t have any extremely large situations like this. When we do have an occurrence, especially mud, that kind of slide into the road, we usually clean them up in a few hours,” Camden said. “We probably have more of a problem with slips.”
Slips occur when the ground beneath a road gives way and collapses.
“A slide is above the road, a slip is below the road,” Camden explained. “We actually seem to have more problems with those, and those can be more complicated to repair. We have to put up a piling wall to stabilize the roadway.”
A road shoulder starting to deteriorate is often the first sign of road slippage. Water getting under the roadway can wash out soil, and vibrations from heavy traffic such as coal trucks can undermine the road, he said. Traffic was not being impeded by the lane closure at this time, but more motorists will be on the highway as Christmas approaches.
“The only bad thing is that we’ve got another holiday, and (the highway) will invariably see an increase in traffic. Any time you narrow down to two lanes, it does result in a slow down in traffic,” Camden said.