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Funds sought to keep ahead of landslide

August 22, 2011
By MARTHA ALLEN - Special to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

KEENE VALLEY - All the pews at Keene Valley Congregational Church were filled Wednesday evening. People stood in the aisles and overflowed into an adjacent room as a crowd of about 150 listened to geologist Andrew Kozlowski speak about the active landslide on Little Porter Mountain.

It is the largest landslide in New York state history, and while movement has slowed, it has not stopped. Eighty-two acres of forested hillside are still moving from 6 inches to 2 feet a day, although it is slowing, Kozlowski told the group. The Machold home has been condemned; the home of James and Charity Marlatt, lately appearing to teeter on the brink of a growing scarp, is in the process of being moved to a more stable location nearby; and other properties on the crown of the slide are in jeopardy.

As Kozlowski discussed the geology of the area, explaining how the soils and rock relate to slide activity, he projected photographic slides on the wall of the nave to illustrate his points.

Unstable, water-saturated sand and clay sediments slide over their bedrock base, causing the typical rotational slump type of landslide now in evidence on Little Porter.

"The grade (of the hillside) in this case is not as much a factor as the soils involved," he told the group.

Kozlowski is the geologist for the Geological Survey of the New York State Museum, a branch of the state Education Department. His job has both academic and service aspects, including conducting research for the public benefit, geological mapping, glacial geology and troubleshooting hazards. Lately, like many others who rely on grant monies, he has experienced funding difficulties.

Kozlowski talked about funding as well as geology Wednesday. Lack of funding is interfering with investigation of the landslide problem. For example, Kozlowski is performing drilling of plugs to ascertain the depth of soils down to bedrock. This test reveals the slide potential of the drilling site. (One home in the slide area, on the Merle-Smith property, is built on bedrock and thus is not in danger.) So far, only five sites have been drilled, due to lack of state funding. Homeowners have picked up the tab for the work.

"We drilled through laminated clays, deposits from the last ice age," Kozlowski said. "We drilled to 85 feet and never encountered bedrock. We have yet to hit bedrock on any of them."

In such cases, it is useful to check well depth, Kozlowski explained. One well at the toe of the slide - the bottom of the hill - is 250 feet deep. At a depth of 150 feet, it sheared off due to the activity of the earth, and the pipe below is now 12 feet to the side. Because of the artesian nature of the aquifer, the well still works.

At the crown of the hillside, however, there are no wells to use as indicators of soil depth, because inhabitants of Adrian's Acres use town water, which is pumped uphill to a reservoir.

"It's a detective story - trying to gauge by testing points in the 82 acres (involved in the slide)," Kozlowski said.

He told the crowd he would like to use Lidar, a high-resolution, high-accuracy mapping technique, to create an aerial topological map. This map would identify different soils and rock and other features of the landscape.

"This new laser tech photography shows current landslide activity and ancient relics of activity that occurred as long ago as 500 to 8,000 years ago, where it can fire up again," Kozlowski said. "The high-resolution aerial data can predict where landslides might happen in the future. Slides are likely to keep occurring, so it is important to learn about them."

Lidar aerial mapping is pricey, at a cost of roughly $480,000. The New York State Museum is not funded to provide Lidar.

Kozlowski told the group, "I plan to include this area in a federal funding grant proposal which would be paid in June, for a maximum of $40,000" - clearly not enough.

The audience was receptive and clearly appreciative. Kozlowski has been in close touch with townspeople here since May 10, when Scott McClelland, a construction contractor who lives near the landslide area, called his office. McClelland voiced concerns about changes he was seeing on a slope in Adrian's Acres. Kozlowski and his assistant, Brian Bird, came out to observe, document, test and explain the phenomenon.

The geologists were amazed to find sand and glacial sediments so high in the hills, where they would have expected bedrock. Keene Valley, they say, was once a huge glacial lake; Chapel Pond was the bedrock drain. The sediments in Adrian's Acres were deposited by water during the last ice age.

Kozlowski talked with people whose homes were in danger and to town officials, to reporters and to the student body at Keene Central School. Although he was powerless to reverse the movement of the slide, he and Bird did educate the populace and somehow provide reassurance.

"I can't tell you how wonderful Andy and Brian are," said Charity Marlatt, whose year-round home has been endangered by the slide. "We are so lucky to have them in this community."

This slide was triggered by heavy snowmelt and spring rains, Kozlowski said. More water saturating the soil could exacerbate the movement. There is no way to predict when the slope will stabilize. He expressed concern that spring might bring more slide activity.

Meanwhile, people who live or own houses at the toe of the slide are still in suspense, wondering what the outcome will be for their property.

Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee, in attendance at the slide show, also held a meeting at the Keene Valley Fire Hall earlier in the day with Kozlowski and government officials at town, Essex County, state and federal levels.

"Our focus is getting an aerial topological map of Essex County," Ferebee explained. "Using infrared photography, they can detect potential future mudslides. But there's a fee."

Ferebee would like to split costs with the county and to find federal funding, possibly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Pamela Machold, whose family owns a seasonal residence destroyed by the slide and condemned by the town of Keene, spoke from the audience. She told the group that the Machold real estate, assessed last February at $500,000, is currently up for sale by Realtor Martha Lee Owen for $18,000.

"No takers yet!" she quipped.

"Thank you," she continued. "We love Keene Valley. ... Let's get the Lidar!"

And she offered advice: "Get insurance that covers mudslides."

She and the other homeowners affected by the slide did not have such insurance.



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