Geologists Blame Landslides in Western N.C. on Soil, Man-Made Development

Tue April 27, 2010 - Southeast Edition
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) Heavy rain and snow are being blamed in part for the recent spate of damaging landslides in western North Carolina, but geologists also say the soil and man-made development are playing a role.

The Citizen-Times of Asheville reported April 4 that landslides, mudslides and rock slides in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee have destroyed parts of three major highways and damaged at least five houses in the past six months.

A massive rock slide in October closed a stretch of Interstate 40 in the far western part of North Carolina. Crews have been working ever since to clear the boulders and drill rock bolts into the mountain to prevent future slides.

On Feb. 5, a 30-ft. wall of mud and rocks swept down Buck Mountain near Maggie Valley clearing a swath 175 ft. wide in places. It damaged at least three homes and cut off access to 37 others.

Macon County resident Mike Boggan had to move out of his home when a slow-moving landslide made his property unstable and led local officials to condemn it. He is staying with friends while still making payments on the home. But he doesn’t know when he might be able to return.

“I just hope that stuff like this doesn’t happen to anybody else,” he said.

State geologists said the soil in Macon County is so soft it can be removed with a hand trowel.

“It has the worst of both worlds,” said Rick Wooten, a senior geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey. “It has the plane of weakness it inherited from the bedrock, but the mass has weathered to the point where it’s lost the strength of what it had.”

Whether the problems are inherent in the soil or man-made, one key, geologists say, is water.

Last year, Asheville got 62.13 in. of rain — the second-wettest year on record behind 1973’s nearly 65 in. — according to the National Weather Service. The area also has had heavy snowfalls this winter.

The snow and wet weather delayed cleanup of I-40 for a month, but North Carolina Transportation Department officials expected to have all but a mile of the westbound lanes open by the end of April.

Varshana McGaughey and her husband built their home in Macon County two years ago. They haven’t had the kind of damage Boggan saw, but worry about what all the rain is doing to the ground beneath their home.

“My concern is about the stability of the whole mountain,” she said, “and what will happen two months down the road or two years down the road.”

The Macon County planning board will soon debate an ordinance governing development on steep slopes and state lawmakers are considering bills governing mountain construction.

It even has become an issue in one North Carolina House race.

Incumbent Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, is sponsoring a state law that would require counties to come up with their own regulations for steep-slope development. His opponent, Democrat Patsy Keever thinks there should be one set of standards for the whole state rather than a county-by-county patchwork of standards.

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