Construction activity now underway on the Interstate 64 widening and bridge replacement project between the Nitro and Scott Depot interchanges became even busier Tuesday, when the first in a series of daily rock-clearing blasts was detonated at the site of a new St. Albans access ramp.
Rolling roadblocks that began at the Cross Lanes and Scott Depot interchanges kept I-64 devoid of traffic in the vicinity of the blast in the moments immediately preceding and following Tuesday’s 12:30 p.m. detonation.
Moments after the explosion rumbled through the rocky overburden at the new ramp’s construction site, the area was inspected to make sure all charges that had been set had detonated, and that the existing interchange lanes were free of debris.
Less than three minutes after an all-clear signal was sounded, traffic on I-64 had resumed its normal pace, and the St. Albans interchange reopened.
“We’re trying to disrupt traffic as little as possible while construction is underway,” said Jason Hamilton, district construction engineer for the West Virginia Division of Highways. “We’re keeping all four lanes of I-64 open, although, later, we will have to narrow the lanes and reduce the speed limit.”
Weather and construction activity permitting, one blast per day is scheduled for the construction zone each weekday between noon and 2 p.m., through the end of August, Hamilton said. Blasting eventually will occur on both sides of the interstate.
On each occasion, personnel from city, county and state law enforcement agencies will guide traffic through the blast zones at reduced speed, through the use of carefully timed and coordinated running roadblocks.
The $224 million improvement project now underway involves widening I-64 to six lanes between the Nitro and Scott Depot interchanges and building two new bridges to carry the interstate across the Kanawha River. All work is scheduled for completion in October 2023.
A separate $103.8 million project to widen I-64 to six lanes between the Barboursville exit and Huntington’s 29th Street exit is expected to be complete by August 2024.
Some things just go together — like salt and pepper, peanut butter and chocolate, or chili and beer on a brisk fall day.
Which is why two well-known, festive Kanawha County events — Wagging Tails and Nitro Ales, along with Charleston’s popular Smoke on the Water Chili Cookoff — are teaming up for a single festival later this year after each was sidelined in 2020.
“On Saturday, Nov. 13, we are going to have the Wagging Tails and Nitro Ales Chili Cookoff: Smoke on the Water edition,” Joe Stevens, executive director of the Nitro Convention & Visitors Bureau, announced Tuesday morning.
Both annual events were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted this year, that didn’t happen in time to allow for the planning and preparation needed to organize Smoke on the Water, which usually takes place in conjunction with the capital city’s summertime FestivALL celebration.
Smoke on the Water typically draws dozens of competitors from across the nation, and even some international cooks, who all need time to get ready for the competition and travel.
“By the time the guidelines were relaxed, and we had some information, there really wasn’t time for us to prepare” for Smoke on the Water to take place in June, said Jennifer Piercy, a longtime organizer of the event.
But with restrictions easing, there was time to plan an event for November.
There already was some overlap between the two events, so, when both sides began to consider a merger, at least temporarily, “We thought it was a natural fit,” Piercy said.
“About five years ago, Wagging Tales came to Nitro ... and, through the tremendous support of the city, it has grown to be a big success,” Jim LeFew, co-founder of the Wagging Tales event, said. “It has gotten bigger every year, and we’re all excited about Smoke on the Water coming with us.”
Something else that made sense to organizers: raising funds for the two charities that have benefited in the past from the two separate events.
Wagging Tales and Nitro Ales raises funds to benefit Dog Bless, a rescue advocacy group that works to find foster and permanent homes for sometimes hard-to-place shelter pets before they are euthanized. Smoke on the Water raises funds for the HospiceCare organization, which provides palliative and hospice care for patients living with serious illness and end-of-life needs.
This year’s combined event will raise funds for both nonprofits.
“They’re helping people in their greatest need and we’re helping animals in their greatest need,” said Beth Sampson, a volunteer and former vice president with Dog Bless.
This year’s event will include the Local Heroes chili cookoff category, something that’s been a highly competitive part of Wagging Tails in year’s past.
“That is any and all first responders, law enforcement, military. They compete against each other so they can have the bragging rights of being the best cook in the area,” LeFew said.
But the 2021 edition includes a twist.
“We’re proud to announce, this year, we will be naming our local hero trophy ‘The Cassie Johnson Award,’” retired Charleston Police Lt. Randy Sampson said.
Johnson, a Charleston police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty last December.
“Prior to becoming a police officer, Cassie was the humane officer for the city of Charleston,” Sampson said. “And so, in honor of her dedication to making the world a better place for both people and animals, we are very proud to be naming our award the Cassie Johnson Award.”
As an event sanctioned by the International Chili Society, organizers are hoping this year’s combined event will attract even more competitors. They expect upward of 50 entries this year, in addition to food trucks, music and vendors.
“Our last in-person Smoke on the Water event was in 2019, where we had 43 competition cooks,” Piercy said. “We have cooks come from across the nation. We’ve had them come in from Canada. So we’re excited to have them come back and show off yet another area of Kanawha County that we take a lot of pride in.”
State officials Tuesday continued to warn West Virginians of the deadly delta COVID-19 variant, which now makes up 83% of all virus cases in the United States.
There has been a “dramatic increase” in U.S. cases of the delta variant, a more transmissible form of the original virus, during the month of July, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Senate hearing Tuesday. On July 3, 50% of U.S. cases were recorded as the delta variant, and virus deaths have increased 48%, to an average of about 239 per day, Walensky said.
Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar, pointed to a recent study from Chinese scientists and the University of Oxford that showed the viral loads — or the quantity of a virus in a given volume of bodily fluid — of people infected with the delta variant to be 1,000 times higher than that of people who were infected during the first weeks of the pandemic.
Marsh said Tuesday that, while the delta variant count remains low in the Mountain State — 22 cases recorded Tuesday— increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths are certainly coming.
The most effective way to prevent serious illness and death against all strains of the virus is still to take any of the three vaccines approved for use, Marsh said.
“Most of the deaths and most of the hospitalizations — 97.5% of hospitalizations and 99% of the deaths — are in people not fully vaccinated for the hospitalizations, and unvaccinated for the deaths,” Marsh said during Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. “So we see what an important role these vaccines are [playing].”
Marsh echoed the similar comments Tuesday from top federal health officials.
“The message from [the] CDC remains clear: The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants is to prevent the spread of disease, and vaccination is the most powerful tool we have,” Walensky said. “Each death is tragic, and even more heartbreaking when we know that the majority of these deaths could be prevented with a simple, safe, available vaccine.”
Marsh closed his remarks by citing the recent warning from Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the head of former president Donald Trump’s Food and Drug Administration, who said Sunday that Americans who choose not to get fully vaccinated will soon face the respiratory fight of their life.
“[Gottlieb] said, if you’re not vaccinated for COVID-19, you will become infected with the delta variant, and this will be the most severe viral infection you’ll have ever faced in your life,” Marsh said. “Although those are very dramatic terms, we’re really, really concerned about the unvaccinated, number one, and also the folks that aren’t fully vaccinated.”
Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday — in a pandemic first — that COVID-19 had not killed any West Virginians since his last virus briefing. He celebrated the achievement but expressed cautious optimism.
“We’ve come a long ways — a long, long ways,” the governor said. “We’re still not out of the woods, we know that — we’ve lost 2,919 folks in West Virginia ... but we have come a long way, West Virginia.”
Justice again pleaded for residents to get fully vaccinated.
A bill introduced to Charleston City Council Monday evening would ban conversion therapy — any practice or treatment that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Councilwoman Caitlin Cook, a council liaison to the city’s LGBTQ Working Group, introduced the bill.
“This ordinance really is about protecting and valuing our LGBT community members that call Charleston home, as well as and making it known to visitors that may come to Charleston that we are an inclusive community,” Cook said.
She added that Charleston has made great strides in positioning itself as an inclusive city. The capital was the first city in West Virginia to pass a local LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance more than a decade ago, according to Fairness West Virginia, a statewide civil rights advocacy organization.
“This is another step that we can take together to make Charleston a more inclusive city while also protecting and valuing our youth,” Cook said.
Under the bill, if the city solicitor determines a medical or mental health practitioner has violated the ordinance, they may mail the practitioner a cease-and-desist notice. The bill also outlines that targets of conversion therapy may bring civil action for relief or damages. Conversion therapy would be punishable by up to a $1,000 fine for each violation.
If the council passes the bill, Charleston would be the first municipality in West Virginia to ban conversion therapy. The practice is opposed by major medical associations and their state affiliates.
Cook said conversion therapy has detrimental long-term effects on children who undergo it, including depression, self-harm and suicide.
“This does happen and, when it does happen, it causes immense damage to people,” Cook said. “If we can prevent a child from harming themselves, from potentially committing suicide as a result of conversion therapy, we should take that action.”
The Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which would ban the practice statewide, was introduced during the 2021 legislative session, but it died in committee.
Charleston’s bill was referred to the council’s Ordinance and Rules Committee for discussion.
Earlier Monday, Kate White, a Piedmont Elementary school parent helping organize revitalization efforts, joined officials from Kanawha County Schools to get input from children using the playground about what they want the renovated playground to be like. White said fundraising efforts for the space are ongoing, and organizers hope to build this fall.