Mountainous road through Windy Gap to get new signs after June wreck

Mountainous road through Windy Gap to get new signs after June wreck

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New, clearer signs warning tractor-trailers not to pass through are set to be installed at both ends of Virginia 116 after a June tanker crash that spilled thousands of gallons of toxic embalming fluid off the side of Windy Gap.

The signs will be posted at both ends and at points along the road, which is called Jae Valley Road in Roanoke and Roanoke County, and Jubal Early Highway in Franklin County.

Although the signs are intended to deter truckers from passing through, they won’t help the South Carolina driver who crashed on June 11.

David Howard Bennett pleaded guilty Wednesday to failing to obey the existing signage and failure to maintain control of his vehicle, a type of reckless driving.

He told a Roanoke County District Court judge that he saw a sign roughly a quarter-mile before he turned onto Jae Valley Road warning him and his tanker away in big, block letters.

But the black-and-white sign was easy to miss. And once he saw it, he said there was no opportunity to turn his truck around on the S-curves of the mountain.

A Roanoke County officer who investigated the wreck said in court that she drove through the area after the wreck, looking to see exactly where the highway signs are placed.

“There just did not appear to be a safe area for anyone to make a wide turn,” said officer C.A. Jacobs.

Judge Vincent Lilley appeared to sympathize with that testimony but told Bennett if he couldn’t find a place to turn around, he should’ve called 911 and asked for help.

“Then, when you continued on, it became much more dangerous a situation,” Lilley said. Bennett’s tanker ended up spilling more than 4,400 gallons of a formaldehyde mixture, leading to the evacuation of roughly 20 homes.

In total, the judge sentenced Bennett to a month in jail with all of the time suspended, a year’s probation, and $1,250 in fines.

The road and two that intersect with it are currently marked with four signs telling truck drivers with vehicles over 28 feet long not to use it to pass through the area. Trucks making deliveries to that stretch of road are permitted.

But the signs are difficult to read and don’t easily catch drivers’ eyes, said Roanoke County police Deputy Chief Chuck Mason.

Mason said officials worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation after the wreck to come up with signage “to make it a good deal more clear.”

The signs originally were installed in 2010 after a series of wrecks, including a farm vehicle that spilled a load of cattle, killing 59 animals.

VDOT spokesman Jason Bond said officials hope to have easier-to-understand signs in place within three to four weeks. There will be more signs and in different styles, and they’ll make use of graphical icons rather than just words.

“The signs that we had up there had words and were a little lengthy,” Bond said. “I think these signs are going to be a little bit easier to understand.”

In addition to the signage, VDOT will likely be assisting contractors for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in the coming months if a proposed plan to excavate contaminated soil from the area goes forward.

Residential and business well samples taken in the area of the spill have shown no signs of formaldehyde, and the remaining contaminated soil on the slope where the spill occurred doesn’t appear to have spread, said Allen Linkenhoker, the pollution response coordinator for the Roanoke office of the DEQ.

But it’s not clear how much soil was contaminated, Linkenhoker said. In order to remove it, contractors likely will have to first shore up the roadway above to ensure it doesn’t collapse.

That process could take months to be approved. In the meantime, Linkenhoker said DEQ contractors hope to install an underground pressurized air system with the goal of breaking down the volatile chemicals.

“It may be that that is the ultimate solution to the cleanup,” he said.

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