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As Cracks Widen In Washington State, Government Prepares For A Landslide

Yakima Valley firefighters talk with farmworker families, trying to persuade them to move away from a developing landslide near Union Gap, Wash.
Anna King
Northwest News Network
Yakima Valley firefighters talk with farmworker families, trying to persuade them to move away from a developing landslide near Union Gap, Wash.

Nearly 70 people live on a sliver of land wedged between Interstate 82 and Rattlesnake Ridge in central Washington state. A massive chunk of the ridge is moving, and cracking, and geologists say it will likely cause a landslide.

In a depression below the cracked ridge just east of the interstate, two firefighters go door to door among mobile homes, trying to get residents to leave quickly in case a landslide destroys their homes.

One of the residents, farmworker Janeth Solorio, says it's a difficult time.

"We have to move and we don't have enough money," Solorio says. "And that's why I'm worried. I'm alone with my son and I'm pregnant, so it's not easy."

There's an offer of five paid weeks for a hotel. Most have taken it, but they keep returning to the precarious spot for belongings and to tend animals.

The quarry question

At the base of the ridge is a quarry for material to make asphalt. Many people wonder if removing part of the ridge destabilized it.

Geologists hired by Anderson Quarry say the slide will be slow-moving. Instead of reaching the Yakima River or the interstate, they say it will slide in a different direction toward the quarry.

But independent geologist Bruce Bjornstad disagrees. Right now, he wouldn't drive that section of interstate.

"I think I would find an alternate route," he says.

Bjornstad has studied the landslides in this area for years and was a geologist with the federal government for decades. He says the cracks showing now, moving more than a foot every week, are likely just the beginning.

"There's evidence elsewhere in the area that suggests that there have been other landslides on other ridges that have released apparently very quickly," Bjornstad says.

Bjornstad and some other area geologists say it could come down in a similar way.

Four million cubic yards

So far, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources says it has looked at its own data and the quarry's, and that the interstate and the river are not likely threatened.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was briefed near the slide outside of Union Gap, Wash., on Sunday. He told reporters there that right now the state's job is to monitor risk and that the state is hiring its own independent geology consultant.

"This is 4 million cubic yards of material that is moving," Inslee says. "And there is no force that we have on Earth that can totally control this."

The next worry: flooding

Federal river managers are scrambling to figure out how to mitigate flooding if 4 million cubic yards dam the Yakima River. They met over the weekend with the state, tribes and counties to plan for the worst. Because the Yakima is flowing low for winter now, some engineers have hope they could stem any flooding if a slide dammed the river.

Chad Stuart is the manager in charge of the Yakima River for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls water and dams across much of the West and nation.

He says no one wants to see this situation continue on into the spring.

"The river is traditionally much higher that time of year," Stuart says. "And we have a lot more unregulated flows due to melt-off and rain."

He also worries about the effects for farmers who need that water in the spring.

"The irrigation season is coming up," Stuart says. "And the potential to impact several hundred million dollars of agriculture business and local impact to the economy is just an issue that no one wants to see happen."

As for the quarry, Anderson has suspended operations for now. The money to move people nearby to hotels came from the quarry's parent company.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.