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Precarious boulder prompts creative action by DOT

There’s a big problem looming over a rural Swain County road — literally — and exactly how to solve it is befuddling Department of Transportation officials.

A rock slide earlier this month sent several SUV-size boulders crashing into Buckner Branch Road, and left one dangling precariously about 70 feet over the road below.

The force of the rocks that did fall would have caused major damage to a vehicle, said Jonathan Woodard, DOT District 14 Engineer. Luckily, no one was driving past that stretch at the time.

“Some rocks bounced plumb over the road, ripped through the guardrail and went into the river,” Woodard said. “A car would have been crushed or drug into the river.”

DOT officials don’t want that fate to befall someone else should the remaining boulder become unlodged. So they’ve closed off the road. But so far, the boulder refuses to budge — despite the best efforts of DOT officials.

“We’ve dealt with similar situations, but what makes this unique is that the area is so steep, and there’s no good way to access it,” Woodard said. To remove the rock “is going to take being pretty creative,” he said.

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So in the past three weeks, DOT workers have pulled on their thinking caps in an effort to solve the problem. They recruited the Bryson City Fire Department, who attempted to hose the rock out of position. It didn’t work.

“We tried to wet down the ground underneath it with water to try and wash some of the debris out from under it, but most of the water just disappeared,” Woodard said.

Workers, stumped, tried another approach. They hooked a cable to the rock, and another end to a bulldozer. They tried to pull or spin the rock off with the dozer.

“It wouldn’t budge,” said Woodard.

Finally, DOT workers think they’ve come upon a solution. They plan to drill a hole in the rock and dynamite it, breaking it into manageable pieces. Then, they’ll hire a company to install a rock catchment fence first. Bids have already been put out to find a contractor for the project.

The DOT will also have to shift the road over about 10 feet toward the river bank. The river is part of Fontana Lake and thus property of the Tennessee Valley Authority, so the DOT is working to secure TVA’s permission.

The road will remain closed in the interim, forcing a detour of 20 minutes the other way to get to town.

Some residents, reluctant to take on the additional drive time, continue to brave the stretch instead. Several vehicles could be seen last week traveling over the muddy, broken pavement, their drivers picking up speed momentarily as they passed under the precrious boulder.

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