The Hawks Nest Tunnel, the 3.1-mile-long man-made channel through Gauley Mountain that exposed thousands of Great Depression-era workers to lethal concentrations of silica dust, is scheduled to be inspected for the first time since it began operating as a conduit for a hydroelectric plant in 1936.
A 25-foot draw-down of Hawks Nest Reservoir will begin Sept. 8 to accommodate the inspection, according to Brookfield Renewable, the owner of the Hawks Nest Dam. The lake will remain at the lowered level until Nov. 8, when the process of restoring it to its normal elevation will begin.
According to a release from Brookfield, experts will conduct a thorough inspection of the complete Hawks Nest Tunnel to determine if any repair work is needed. One area on which inspectors will focus is the point where the tunnel connects with the powerhouse, located just upriver of Gauley Bridge.
Some public access and recreation activities in the vicinity of the dam and powerhouse will be affected by the draw-down, including the tailrace fishing pier and parking area adjacent to the powerhouse, scheduled to temporarily close on Aug. 24. A hiking and biking trail stretching from a parking area near the W.Va. 16 bridge at Cotton Hill to the base of Hawks Nest Dam already is closed and will remain so through the duration of the inspection.
According to Brookfield, the temporary reduction of reservoir depth is expected to have little to no effect on fish and other aquatic wildlife. In the vicinity of the dam, water depth is normally about 65 feet, according to Brian Noonan, Brookfield’s manager of stakeholder relations.
From the base of Hawks Nest Dam to Gauley Bridge, the 6-mile stretch of New River known as the “Dries” will be wetter than usual this fall because of the inspection, since no water will be diverted through the tunnel, which can handle up to 10,000 cubic feet per second. The full flow of the New will pass through the Dries during the inspection period.
Bobby Bower, new owner of New River Jet Boats, which offers excursions on Hawks Nest Reservoir from Hawks Nest State Park to the New River Gorge Bridge and the end of Fayette Station rapids, said the draw-down has forced him to postpone offering tours until further notice. Bower said that, when he bought the business last spring, he had planned to begin offering trips starting July 4, but the coronavirus pandemic and “difficulties with lake operations have kept us off the water this summer.
Bower said he had heard from a third-party contractor that a draw-down would take place sometime this year, but he was unable to learn its time frame until late July.
“New River Jet Boats will be back on the water as soon as there is a place to run trips,” Bower said.
“We understand the impacts to the public and have worked to mitigate those impacts,” said Andy Davis, Brookfield Renewables’ strategic relationships director. While the company made an effort “to avoid a significant draw-down of the reservoir,” its consultants and on-staff specialists determined it was necessary to lower the level of the lake to make sure inspection work can be done safely.
The Hawks Nest Tunnel was completed months ahead of schedule by workers who labored six days a week on 10- to 12-hour shifts to drill and blast their way more than 3 miles through Gauley Mountain sandstone. The workers were issued no protective breathing gear to filter silica dust from the air.
According to Martin Cherniack, the medical doctor who wrote “The Hawks Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster,” at least 764 of the 1,213 people who worked in the tunnel for at least two months died from respiratory problems within five years of the tunnel’s completion.
The majority of the Hawks Nest workers were Black people from the South.