A Pend d’Oreille Valley resident says traveling the Seven Mile Highway during the spring can be like playing a game of “Russian Roulette.”
The road, known for rock slides and avalanches is the only route for Judy Urquhart, a registered nurse for Interior Health, and her neighbours to take to Trail since the Waneta-Nelway Road closed to regular traffic for the duration of the Waneta Dam expansion project.
“Normally if the roads are bad – if there’s an avalanche, if there’s rock slides – we’d actually carry on down the Old Waneta-Nelway Road, which goes through the Waneta expansion down to Waneta border,” she explained.
“In the spring after heavy rain or after there is a freeze and then a thaw, we would just automatically do that as a safety precaution.”
But the 32-year resident hasn’t had this option since project officials made an agreement with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to close this dirt road to regular traffic so that larger trucks hauling heavy loads of rock, rebar and cement wouldn’t pose a threat to the traveling public.
“Being aware of the snow slides and rock slides of Seven Mile, we set up a protocol: if the road has a slide on it, snow or otherwise, and their geotechnical people deemed that it wasn’t safe then we would then open up the Old Nelway Road and take the construction traffic off it until that situation was resolved,” explained Wally Penner, regional project manager for contractor SNC Lavalin.
There is so much construction traffic, added Penner, that there is even a system in place for on site vehicles.
District operations manager Darrell Gunn for Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said Seven Mile is known as a high-avalanche hazard area just like many others in the province. The site is inspected regularly, he added, and the public is notified when its deemed dangerous.
“We sign it appropriately so people can expect to see rocks on the road,” he said. “In the spring when there are some rocks that do come down, there are high-frequency patrols by the maintenance contractor so they can clean off any sort of rock that does come down and report any issues that they see.”
But this isn’t good enough for Urquhart. She’s raised concerns since 2011, yet there still hasn’t been any proactive steps taken like blasting or adding more protective netting to the highway.
“There has been a number of avalanches but it’s the big ones that have resulted in the area being closed,” she said, adding that it once took up to three hours for the secondary route to open up.
On one occasion during a snow storm, her neighbour got caught and had to walk home. Personally, she’s had a few near misses where a large boulder struck their truck, taking out the oil pan, and hitting just below the back passenger window of their car another time.
In late March, Urquhart drove right up to the remains of a rock slide because there were no flaggers set up and the avalanche gates still hadn’t been lowered. She didn’t know the event had occurred until she saw the massive boulder that measured higher than her Subaru Impreza and nearly the same length. She was then directed to take the secondary route.
“I’d really like for it to change so locals or people who are working at the dam have another way of going through the Waneta expansion route now,” she said. “Right now there is a great big rock just being held by dirt and we know it’s going to go one day.”
The Old Waneta-Nelway Road is expected to re-open to the public when the project is complete in 2015.