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January 28, 2014

Avalanches cut off road to Alaskan city

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Highway access to the city at the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline has been cut off indefinitely by avalanches, including one that dammed a river and created a lake up to a half-mile long across the roadway in a 300-foot wide mountain canyon.

State Department of Transportation officials said Monday that the snow slide about 12 miles outside Valdez on the Richardson Highway cannot be cleared until water behind the snow drains. The water in Keystone Canyon is too deep on the upstream side for crews to approach the snow dam. Officials fear that digging from the downstream side could trigger a dangerous surge of water and harm work crews.

“At this time there is no safe way to approach relieving that water,” said Jason Sakalaskas, northern region maintenance engineer, at a news teleconference.

The avalanche was in a location prone to avalanches and known locally as Snow Slide Path, said Mike Coffey, the DOT’s statewide maintenance engineer.

“This is of a magnitude we probably have never seen before,” Coffey said.

The Lowe River is a whitewater stream with Class 4 and 5 rapids. Rafting companies use it in summer for trips, but usually in winter it’s just a trickle, Valdez DOT Superintendent Robert Dunning said. The rain and melting snowpack have filled the river to about one-third its summer capacity, he said.

Coffey estimated snow is piled 100 feet high on the Lowe River and up to 50 feet high on the highway.

A second avalanche is blocking the highway at Mile 39. Up to 10 more avalanches are blocking parts of the highway that stretches north 360 miles to Fairbanks.

The avalanches have not affected the trans-Alaska pipeline, which is buried in the area. Air and water access remains open to Valdez.

The city’s 4,100 residents, especially old-timers, are taking the inconvenience in stride, city Clerk Sheri Pierce said.

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