As Cracks Widen In Washington State, Government Prepares For A Landslide

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 9:39 am

Nearly 70 people live on a sliver of land wedged between Interstate 82 and Rattlesnake Ridge in central Washington state. A massive chunk of the ridge is moving, and cracking, and geologists say it will likely cause a landslide.

In a depression below the cracked ridge just east of the interstate, two firefighters go door to door among mobile homes, trying to get residents to leave quickly in case a landslide destroys their homes.

One of the residents, farmworker Janeth Solorio, says it's a difficult time.

"We have to move and we don't have enough money," Solorio says. "And that's why I'm worried. I'm alone with my son and I'm pregnant, so it's not easy."

There's an offer of five paid weeks for a hotel. Most have taken it, but they keep returning to the precarious spot for belongings and to tend animals.

The quarry question

At the base of the ridge is a quarry for material to make asphalt. Many people wonder if removing part of the ridge destabilized it.

Geologists hired by Anderson Quarry say the slide will be slow-moving. Instead of reaching the Yakima River or the interstate, they say it will slide in a different direction toward the quarry.

But independent geologist Bruce Bjornstad disagrees. Right now, he wouldn't drive that section of interstate.

"I think I would find an alternate route," he says.

Bjornstad has studied the landslides in this area for years and was a geologist with the federal government for decades. He says the cracks showing now, moving more than a foot every week, are likely just the beginning.

"There's evidence elsewhere in the area that suggests that there have been other landslides on other ridges that have released apparently very quickly," Bjornstad says.

Bjornstad and some other area geologists say it could come down in a similar way.

Four million cubic yards

So far, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources says it has looked at its own data and the quarry's, and that the interstate and the river are not likely threatened.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was briefed near the slide outside of Union Gap, Wash., on Sunday. He told reporters there that right now the state's job is to monitor risk and that the state is hiring its own independent geology consultant.

"This is 4 million cubic yards of material that is moving," Inslee says. "And there is no force that we have on Earth that can totally control this."

The next worry: flooding

Federal river managers are scrambling to figure out how to mitigate flooding if 4 million cubic yards dam the Yakima River. They met over the weekend with the state, tribes and counties to plan for the worst. Because the Yakima is flowing low for winter now, some engineers have hope they could stem any flooding if a slide dammed the river.

Chad Stuart is the manager in charge of the Yakima River for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls water and dams across much of the West and nation.

He says no one wants to see this situation continue on into the spring.

"The river is traditionally much higher that time of year," Stuart says. "And we have a lot more unregulated flows due to melt-off and rain."

He also worries about the effects for farmers who need that water in the spring.

"The irrigation season is coming up," Stuart says. "And the potential to impact several hundred million dollars of agriculture business and local impact to the economy is just an issue that no one wants to see happen."

As for the quarry, Anderson has suspended operations for now. The money to move people nearby to hotels came from the quarry's parent company.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is a potentially massive landslide that's looming over one of the main interstates in Washington state. The Northwest News Network's Anna King reports from a place called Rattlesnake Ridge.

ANNA KING: Nearly 70 people live on this sliver of land in central Washington state. Mobile homes are wedged in a depression below the ridge, flanked by Interstate 82.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

KING: I trail two firefighters who go door to door, trying to get the residents here to leave. Farmworker Janeth Solorio says it's difficult.

JANETH SOLORIO: We have to move, and we don't have enough money.

KING: There's an offer of five paid weeks for a hotel. Most have taken it, but they keep returning to the precarious spot for belongings and to tend to animals. At the base of the ridge is a quarry for material to make asphalt. Many people wonder if removing part of the ridge destabilized it. Geologists hired by Anderson Quarry say the slide will be slow-moving and that it isn't likely to reach the Yakima River or the interstate. They say it will slide in a different direction - toward the quarry. But an independent geologist disagrees. Right now, he wouldn't drive that section of interstate.

BRUCE BJORNSTAD: I think I would find an alternate route.

KING: That's Bruce Bjornstad. He has studied landslides in the area for years, including decades with the federal government. He says the cracks showing now, moving more than a foot every week, are likely just the beginning.

BJORNSTAD: There's evidence elsewhere in the area that suggests that there have been other landslides on other ridges that have released, apparently, very quickly.

KING: Bjornstad and some other geologists say it could come down in a similar way. But so far, Washington State Department of Natural Resources says it has looked at its own data and the quarries, and that the interstate and the river are not likely threatened. Washington Governor Jay Inslee told the press Sunday that at this point, the state's job is to monitor risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY INSLEE: This is 4 million cubic yards of material that is moving. And there is no force that we have on Earth that's - that can totally control this.

KING: Federal river managers are scrambling to figure out how to mitigate flooding if 4 million cubic yards dam up the Yakima River. They met over the weekend with the state, tribes and counties to plan for the worst. Anderson Quarry has suspended operations for now. The money to move people nearby to hotels came from the quarry's parent company. For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Union Gap, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW DANCING SOCIETY'S "AS NIGHT TAKES THE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.