At least a dozen spotters, hired to examine the soil for missing possessions and human remains as crews clear Highway 530 from the March 22 Oso mudslide, walked away from the debris fields earlier this week. They cited safety concerns and said they weren't given adequate time to do their jobs.
Among them was Tom Keller, whose brother-in-law Steven Hadaway, of Darrington, is one of two people presumed dead but whose bodies have not been found along with the 41 confirmed victims.
Keller said he worries workers could get hurt or worse, only compounding the tragedy.
“There is no way I'm going to risk somebody else's life,” he said.
State Department of Transportation officials insist that the highway clearing is being carried out in a respectful and methodical way and that procedures set by the Snohomish County Medical Examiners Office are being followed by the contractor and subcontractor.
“There are still two people missing,” agency spokesman Travis Phelps said. “We totally understand that. We want to make sure we have processes in place where we aren't missing anything.”
Phelps said there are multiple opportunities for spotters and archeologists to examine the dirt, on site and where it is being dumped at a rock pit*.
He also insisted that the state will spend as long as necessary to clear the highway.
Several who quit as spotters worked in the debris fields for weeks during the search and recovery mission. They said they weren't motivated by money when they hired on. Rather, they wanted to help families who lost loved ones.
Logan Shull, a former volunteer for the Rural Arlington fire district, lost friends.
The pace of the work on the highway project has prevented any meaningful search of the soil, he said.
“I made a commitment to myself to be out there until everyone was recovered,” he said. “The idea was as we punch the road, we are continuing to look for people. It was not that way at all.
“We need people to understand what they are doing is wrong,” he said.
Vonne VanLaningham, of Arlington, was a lead spotter at the Oso pit where dirt was dumped.
“We were just not allowed to do what we were hired to do,” she said. “It was just truck after truck dump and go. Everything was going so fast.”
She also said the work brought them dangerously close to the trucks and machinery. Others said the walks to and from their spotting stations weren't safe.
The spotters said they believed a financial incentive built into the contract between the federal and state government ratcheted up the pace. The federal government is paying 87 percent of the cost of work for the first 30 days. After that, the rate drops to 82 percent.
It was a detail they heard more than once in the debris fields.
Phelps dismissed the timeline and compensation rate as factors.
“The reimbursement rate is not dictating our pace,” he said.
That is determined by what is found, Phelps said. When a car was discovered, for example, work slowed down.
The pace picked up lately because “a lot of what we have been finding is relatively clean soil,” he said.
Workers have been toiling around the clock in 12-hour shifts since the cleanup began earlier this month. So far, they've cleared roughly half of the 90,000* cubic yards of muddy debris.
They've also discovered that the slide carried away more than 600 feet of the highway's asphalt.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Correction, May 21, 2014: This article originally incorrectly described the site where dirt is being dumped and the quantity of the debris.
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