By DAYNA DRUM | Reporter
Engineers have started testing the stability of the Via Bluffs, checking to see if a cliff top road closed half a century ago in the wake of a landslide, can be reopened—despite resident fears that this is a doomed, money-wasting and potentially dangerous venture.
In April 1958 Via De Las Olas was a popular road for tourists seeing a high ocean view: Then it collapsed onto Pacific Coast Highway, killing one person.
Today it’s a jagged tapestry of broken curbs jutting out over a sheer drop to Pacific Coast Highway. The road has continued to break away ever since.
But engineers hope it could be reopened.
This week engineers Ninyo & Moore started to locate and clean out pipes that carry away surplus water and test the soil of the looming sandstone and shale.
Residents watch skeptically. While Bill Moran, who has lived on the street for three decades, supports the city’s effort to test the area’s stability, he believes reopening the road would be “an enormous waste of money.”
The bluffs are not unfamiliar with being poked and prodded. As cliffs fell the city has adjusted the cliff side barriers accordingly—resulting in serpentine fencing easily showing the broken cliffs and the fragility of the area.
In April 1958, a quarter-mile of Pacific Coast Highway was buried under 100 feet of earth after two back-to-back landslides rocked the bluffs.
The first landslide nearly trapped a man and his stepson, and a week later, the second slide buried a highway supervisor alive. Shortly after the tragedy, a section of the road along the top of the bluffs, Via de las Olas, was closed for public use. In the years that Moran has lived on the street, he said he has never heard a neighbor express interest for the city to reopen the road.
“People have figured out how to live [with it] for 55 years,” he said.
After the road was closed off, enter Occidental Petroleum in the 1960s when oil prices were low and the industry was developing at a fast pace. The company planned to drill for oil and in preparation installed 22 hydraugers, the water relieving pipelines, into the landslide debris and beneath Via de las Olas. But the work they did still wasn’t enough to stabilize the bluffs for oil drilling, causing the company to abandon the project and the property—rendering it city land.
The bluffs sit precariously close to the Santa Monica-Potrero Canyon fault zone, which is capable of producing a 7.35 magnitude earthquake, according to a 2007 study conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbara and Columbia University. The fault zone has been by no means dormant over the last century. Earthquake data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that on Jan. 17, 1994, the day of the famed Northridge Earthquake, the zone area was hit with a 5.89 quake and shook continuously throughout the day. Studies conducted after Northridge show that the fault zone may have had significant impact on the damage that occurred in Santa Monica.
While having magnificent views of the ocean, the residents of Via de las Olas have been worried for some time about a reoccurring catastrophe like the 1950s landslides. In 2005, a group of residents asked the Pacific Palisades Community Council to support their effort to beseech the city to take action on the bluffs and stabilize them.
Some 11 years later, the city seems to be responding. Ninyo and Moore will locate the existing hydraugers placed by Occidental and clean them out via hydro-jetting. Part of the project will also include performing three large borings to log the soil in the ground. In addition, four inclinometers will be installed along the street so that the city can conduct incline readings on the area. The process is estimated to take about four weeks, at which point it will be determined if the bluffs are safe enough to reopen Via de las Olas for traffic access.
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