The Interstate 40 rockslide cleanup could now take until May, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the region.
At a Haywood County commissioners meeting on Monday, Setzer stated the cleanup could take between three to five more months.
Each month tacked on to the estimate translates to a tougher economic battle for businesses that rely heavily on thru traffic on I-40. The road closure also deters tourists accustomed to easy access to the region via the interstate.
While the rockslide is currently impacting ski season in Maggie Valley, critical spring season tourism across the region would also be affected if the cleanup takes as long as May.
N.C. DOT officials had hoped to reopen the 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border by the end of January, according to initial estimates made when the rockslide occurred in late October.
Soon after, the estimate was revised to February.
It has been difficult for the DOT to pin down exactly how long the cleanup will take, since there is still so much uncertainty about the slope’s overall stability.
The DOT is monitoring the slope every three hours to ensure the safety of contractors, who are drilling and blasting apart boulders into smaller pieces to be hauled away.
Depending on the slope’s stability, or instability, DOT might have to remove up to 6 million tons in material, thereby lengthening the cleanup process.
“After any blast, if that mass up there moves, we can’t stop because we made that unstable,” said Setzer. “You can’t put a fence at the bottom to hold this kind of weight.”
For now, the rock mass has been more stable than expected, allowing the DOT to pursue a plan that includes rock bolts.
Once installed, the rock bolts will help secure the slope by holding together independent rock masses.
Although motels, restaurants and gas stations near the closed section of I-40 are suffering a drop in business, the rockslide has managed to bring work to a few local businesses.
According to Setzer, the DOT recently hired about 14 Haywood County trucks to haul away tons of debris to a local U.S. Forest Service site. The material will be used in future road repairs.
On Sunday, the biggest blast since work started in late October brought down 5,000 cubic yards of material — weighing the equivalent of more than 1,000 full-grown elephants, according to the DOT.