Michael A. Sawyers
WESTERNPORT — The black-on-yellow State Highway Administration signs along state Route 135, both east and west of Westernport, are brief and to the point.
“Falling Rock,” they state.
When a rock falls or when debris slides in that area there is only one destination, the highway.
And rocks do fall and mud does slide, though it’s been a while since the roadway experienced a blockage large enough to shut it down.
“The most severe slide in recent history was May 15, 2006, when the road was closed for more than 12 hours to remove 1,530 cubic yards of rock, shale and soil,” SHA officials told the Times-News. That clogging of the vehicular artery took place just west of Luke.
There are two other hot spots, or steep spots, one on each side of Westernport.
You can’t miss them. In a spot or two, the rock seems to nearly overhang the road, creating a geologic canopy.
Eric Dougherty, SHA’s chief of the Engineering Geology Division, said minor slides occur each year during the spring thaw and rain season.
“Hard rains bring down shale, mud, rock and clay in several areas,” he said. “Typically, these involve only a wheelbarrow load or two of debris along the white line at the edge of the road.”
With rock walls on one side and a guardrail on the Potomac River side, road shoulders are out of the question. Consequently, minor debris and rock cleanups require stopping traffic to allow a loader to scoop.
“In some cases, we have had to reduce traffic to a single lane with flagging for up to an hour or two for these seasonal events,” Dougherty said.
Another slide that closed the highway for one hour happened Dec. 17, 2007. Four tons of shale were removed just east of Westernport.
You can’t fool Mother Nature, but sometimes SHA gives her a helping hand, inducing slides so as to have some control over the outcome.
Such a man-made slide took place Nov. 17, 2006, closing the road for eight hours for the removal of 420 cubic yards of rock and shale. Another was on June 5, 2008, involving 800 cubic yards of spoil.
Debris is hauled to properties where the owners have obtained grade or fill permits from the county and is used for filling in a foundation of a demolished building or a large hole in a farm field.
More than 6,000 vehicles use the highway daily, a significant amount of the traffic being generated by the presence of the NewPage paper mill in Luke. “We are happy to work closely with the State Highway Administration in providing an alternate route for our employees to get to and from work, as well as for emergency vehicles, through our Piedmont entrance,” said Patsy Koontz, the mill’s public relations manager.
The highway is also the main route from the Keyser, W.Va., area to Oakland.
When 135 is closed, SHA establishes detours for truck traffic, but local motorists usually find their own replacement routes, agency officials said.
The best news about past rock and debris slides, according to SHA, is that there have been no documented injuries to motorists or passengers.
Dougherty said Friday that the slopes are a mix of sandstone, shale, coal and mud.
“Inspectors from LaVale (SHA District 6) check the slopes on a regular basis,” Dougherty said. They look for new or changed scar faces on the debris slopes and expansion of joints or gaps in the solid rock.
Dougherty said no problems are currently evident. “If it was unsafe, we’d be working on it.”
Westernport Mayor Dan Laffey said traffic backup is noticeable during highway closures, especially large trucks attempting to reach NewPage.
“SHA is real good about getting the highway cleaned up after a slide and they inspect the slopes regularly. They’re on top of it,” Laffey said.
In 2011, state Route 550 near Thurmont was closed for two months after rain created a mudslide. Following closure, the highway was operated with only one lane of alternating traffic for a year while the slope was stabilized and a retaining wall was built.
Contact Michael A. Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.