Drainage slows on highway lake formed by avalanche
This Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 photo provided by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities shows a partially-submerged highway sign at the closed Richardson Highway near Valdez, Alaska. Two major avalanches and some smaller ones dumped snow Friday along 27 miles of the Richardson Highway, closing the only road access to Valdez, Alaska, the city at the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
AP Photo/Alaska DOT&PF, File
ANCHORAGE (AP) — Conditions were too unstable Wednesday to clear the only road into the city at the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which remains cut off by land from the rest of the state for a fifth day because of avalanches.
Drainage has slowed from a lake formed by one of the slides, and the water is too deep for heavy equipment to pass, the Alaska Department of Transportation said.
Avalanches Friday dumped hundreds of tons of snow onto the Richardson Highway, the only road access into Valdez. The city remained accessible only by air and sea, and its 4,100 residents were taking the inconvenience in stride, according to Valdez's clerk.
One of two major avalanches put at least 40 feet of snow onto the road in Keystone Canyon, a 300-foot-wide mountain opening that begins 12 miles from the city.
The avalanche also dammed the Lowe River and created a 2,500-foot-long lake with depths of at least 5 feet.
The trans-Alaska pipeline is buried parallel to the highway and was not affected by avalanches.
The lake's water was draining Tuesday at a rate of 5 inches per hour under the avalanche and through an abandoned rail tunnel, said Transportation Department spokeswoman Hannah Blankenship. By Wednesday, the lake had receded to a length of 1,500 feet and water was no longer draining through the tunnel.
"The water is now draining at a rate of 3 inches per hour," Blankenship said.
The water remained too deep for heavy equipment to reach the avalanche from the upstream side. Crews have not removed snow from the downstream side because officials fear collapsing the snow dam and triggering a dangerous surge of water.
Transportation officials continue to monitor the lake level as water saturates the snow.
"The snow is still wet and very heavy, and it's not safe for us to move with heavy equipment," she said.
Transportation officials used explosives fired from a 105 mm howitzer Wednesday to trigger controlled avalanches at Mile 39, the site of the second major avalanche blocking the road.
Shortly after 4 p.m., crews using heavy equipment had cleared the north end of the closed road and announced 24 more miles of highway was open, from Miles 19 to 42.
That allowed people living in a subdivision at Mile 19 to drive north if they wanted, Blankenship said.
Meanwhile, the Valdez Star reported that a couple arrested Saturday for walking through an avalanche blasting area were trying to get medical care in Valdez for their cat.
Kristina Clark and Donney Carlson, driving south on the highway, found their way blocked and walked more than a mile over two avalanches to get 5-year-old Ninja to a veterinarian for treatment of an infection. Alaska State Troopers said they ignored orders to stay out of the avalanche zones and blasting had to be delayed.
Clark, of nearby Copper Center, and Carlson were picked up by a helicopter and arrested when they landed in Valdez. They were released on bail Sunday.
Dr. Kelly Hawkins treated their pet. The veterinarian said the cat would not have lasted much longer without treatment.