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Blasts from road project pose danger, residents say

Work on an access road into Midas Mountain Estates above Garfield Bay has locals worried about falling rock and debris from blasting for the road. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Work on an access road into Midas Mountain Estates above Garfield Bay has locals worried about falling rock and debris from blasting for the road. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

SANDPOINT – Blasts from a recent road-building project on a mountainside above Garfield Bay shook loose several large rocks that landed a little too close for comfort, several homeowners say. It also left them wondering if more should be done to protect people and property from construction work on slopes.

Blasts to carve a road grade up the hill to a new home site began in mid-May and continued for about six weeks. About 200 residents in Garfield Bay, just south of Sandpoint, quickly learned to take cover when they heard the blare of the contractor’s horn that signaled another blast was imminent. Then they’d hear the explosion, followed by the rumble of debris tumbling down the mountain.

“It’s a horrendous sound,” said Jerry Luther, who has lived in the area 27 years.

Luther described one blast that unleashed a 300-pound boulder. “It just missed the propane tank of one of our neighbors,” he said. “It could have been a real disaster.”

A boulder weighing about 500 pounds dropped in a lot adjacent to another house. “There is no barrier stopping the boulders,” resident Lynn Franck said.

The road is going in on Grouse Mountain, about 1,000 feet above existing homes. A California man who has owned the land for several years is developing a piece of the 35-acre property. Jack Hester, an excavation contractor overseeing the work, said the road will serve a single home to be built on the mountain.

“The land was subdivided years ago, and this person is just building the driveway to his property,” Hester said.

He also said considerable safety measures were taken to ensure that no property below was damaged by the blasts, which were handled by a subcontractor from St. Maries.

“The rocks that rolled down the hill were rocks that were laying on the hillside and were shook loose from the blast,” Hester said. “They were not from the blast itself.”

He added that he put up a fence to protect the homes below and laid a blasting mat on top of the ground that was blasted. “They are blasting mats made out of old truck tires, and we lay them on top,” Hester said.

He also built a concrete wall to protect two homes whose owners had expressed concern. “We did everything we could think of and more,” he said.

Several residents said they found the blasting to be a nuisance in the tranquil community, and they worried about the safety of people, pets and property as boulders rolled down toward their homes.

Franck, a 21-year resident, said she called every agency she could think of to learn what, if any, regulations the contractor must follow. She said she didn’t want to wait until someone got injured or worse. She talked with county, state and federal officials and consulted state building codes. “I get passed the buck each time I talk to someone,” she said.

Franck said contractors should be held to regulations to protect people and property from blast debris, much like those who build along the perimeter of Lake Pend Oreille must erect a barrier to keep construction debris from going into the lake.

She couldn’t find anyone who said they were responsible for public safety near blast zones. That concerned Luther as well. “It appears that no one is in charge. It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said.

The Sandpoint Planning Department has no jurisdiction over the matter because the site is outside city limits. But Bonner County has no building department. If it did, Franck said she believes residents would have more recourse to ensure their safety.

She also contacted the state Department of Lands and learned there are no guidelines regarding use of dynamite.

“It amazes me that after 9/11 that there are no regulations where people can dynamite or blast,” Franck said.

The city advised her to work with Bonner County commissioners to put some safety measures in place for future projects. “I have a feeling there will be more people coming in and blasting up high,” she said.

Franck said she’d like to see a safety plan developed that includes notifying nearby property owners before blasting occurs and advising residents what safety measures the contractor will use.

“It’s good public relations,” she said.

Apart from the blasting noise and rolling rocks, Franck and other residents say they are concerned about the effect new construction has on erosion and stormwater management.

Franck hopes to meet with County Commissioner Todd Crossett to raise her concerns, but she said she won’t stop there. Next on her list are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies.

“I know it won’t help our situation,” she said. “But I’m hoping that I can help someone else down the road.”


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