Scientists predicted the Oso landslide, but nothing was done. Over the years, they spoke out again and again, without effect on development in the area. And then, March 22 happened.
And from the looks of the latest report by the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association (you can read about it in yesterday’s New York Times in “Washington Mudslide Report Cites Rain, but doesn’t Give Cause or Assign Blame,” there aren’t a lot of take-home lessons to prevent another catastrophe. The report did say that heavy rain in the weeks before the landslide were a factor. It suggested that the destabilization of soil from a 2006 slide in the same place and logging.
“But the authors stopped short of naming a specific cause or assigning blame, saying that a slide of such devastating size and force was not predictable.” How strange, and how useless…..isn’t there an awful lot of room between finding causes and prediction?
Not only in retrospect, the Oso, Washington landslide in the North Cascade foothills that killed 43 people on March 22, 2014 was a catastrophe-in-waiting. While scientists issued reports on the landslide dangers, the town continued to issue building permits and to minimize the chances of a landslide.
The Northern Cascades in Washington State, an area with a history of landslides, high annual rainfall, logging in the area, the fast-moving Stillaquamish River undercutting the hill….all of these factors were indicators of potential instability and were pointed out, documented, analyzed, and reported.
Engineering geologist Robert Thorson from the Univeristy of Connecticut studied in the Oso area, and has outlined some of the history of pessimistic scientists’ reports, local media often responsive to the scientists, and resultant action in denial of the scientific reports.
1932 Aerial photographs showed recent slides.
1949 Landslide destroyed nearly half a mile of the riverbank.
1950’s Hillside named Slide Hill. Various geological reports predicted more landslides.
1951 Causes of mudflows from 1949 slide shown to be unstable glacial material, undercutting of the hill by the river, heavy rainfall that caused small landslides which then dammed the river and made it more powerful.
1960 By this time, berms, dikes, ditches, revetments, and walls had been built in attempts to prevent slides. All were destroyed.
1969 Engineering geologists from the University of Washington and the State Department of Natural Resources wrote reports and memos highlighting “a grave and unstoppable problem.”
1990’s Investigations continued.
1997 Dan Miller, in a report to the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, warned of a looming disaster.
1999 Dan and Lynne Miller, in a report to the Army Corp of Engineers, warned to the potential for a large catastrophic failure.
2006 Massive landslide on hillside above Oso. Houses were being built, and building continued to 2013.
Still, as Thorson reported, 2 days after the 2014 Oso slide, John Pennington (the head of the Department of Emergency management for Snohomish County) told the Seattle Times that “It was considered very safe….this was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”
In August, 2004, the State Department of Nature Resources approved the plan of logging company Grandy Lake Forest to cut adjacent to the plateau above the known slide area. The cut appears to have gone beyond the permitted area. In 2009 and 2011, Grandy Lake were approved to take more logs in the area.
Snohomish County continued to allow houses and trailers to be located on Steelhead Drive after scientists pointed out the unstable hillside just across the Stillaquamish River.
That was the pattern: in spite of warnings by scientists and engineers, local government allowed logging and development to continue in the Oso area.
There were times when government agencies, developers, or loggers heeded scientists’ warnings. In 1988, for example, local company Summit Timber applied to log above the slope over Oso. Paul Kennard, a geologist for the Tulalip Tribes, Noel Wolff, a hydrologist who worked for the state, and Lee Benda, a geologist at the Univeristy of Washington, all spoke out of the danger to the hillside. The Department of Natural Resources stopped the logging. Summit persisted in seeking a permit, but stopped after finally appreciating the risk.
The popular Gold Basin Campground in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is 15 miles away from Oso and is under a hill (Gold Basin Hill) with geology similar to Oso. As for Oso, there have been documented landslides since the 1940’s and many requests and proposals to move the campground. Environmental engineer Tracy Drury, hired by the Stillaquamish Tribe, warned in 2001 of a catastrophic landslide that could cover the campground: Drury had also warned of the potential for a catastrophic landslide at Oso in 2000.
In the immediate wake of Oso, the U.S. Forest Service still refused to move the campground, a dependable source of revenue. But, by May, soon after concerns of a potential landslide at the Gold Basin Campground had made the national press, the Forest Service announced that it would delay the opening of Gold Basin Campground while they studies the landslide danger. The campground is still not open.
Also in May, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who leads the Department of Natural Resources, announced that logging could not take place without a review if the proposed site is even close to a potential landslide area. Formerly, state rules only required the logging companies to submit their own report to the Department of Natural Resources. Goldmark also encouraged the use of more modern technology to map potential landslide areas.
If the pattern of the past 80 years persists, anxiety about landslides will fade, and rules will again grow lax. What can scientists do to get their information to the public, and to the agencies that can act on the information?
It is hard to take lessons from Oso. Scientists did speak out. The press and media did often respond. As for climate change, and antibiotic resistance, and a host of persistent problems that seem never to get addressed, there are small victories, and steps backwards, and sometimes, catastrophies.
-Use the catastrophies. That is often the only time you get press interested.
-Use the press. Write op-eds. Volunteer for a local radio show. Sign petitions. Be persistent.
-Get your message out to multiple agencies. It is clear that in Oso there are overlapping federal agencies, sometimes oblivious to the other, sometimes competing with each other, and it was all too easy for action to fall between the cracks. Try to find the one person who will listen and step beyond the usual timid boundaries of the job.
– Act locally. It is usually state or town agencies that can act on environmental and safety issues, not national ones. Local business folk might be more inclined to listened to neighbors about issues than a national company would.
-Carry on even when you are shocked by the greed that can make people oblivious to danger, and the tendency of your own neighbors to believe that their situation will be the exception to your data.
– Not all scientists will be on your side.