Alpine Meadows residents stand opposed to Gazex for avalanche control on road | SierraSun.com

Alpine Meadows residents stand opposed to Gazex for avalanche control on road

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows nearly tripled the size of its Gazex remote avalanche control system prior to the 2017-18 season. Roughly 75 Alpine Meadows residents met in Tahoe City to hear from Squaw President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Cohen, expressing concerns over noise of the blasts, resulting vibrations, potential drops in property values and proximity of the explosions to homes.

Residents of Alpine Meadows recently met with representatives from Placer County and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows to discuss ongoing concerns surrounding the recent installation of eight Gazex fixed remote avalanche control structures by the resort.

Roughly 75 members of the community gathered in Tahoe City to hear from Squaw President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Cohen, while expressing concerns over noise of the blasts, resulting vibrations, potential drops in property values, proximity of the explosions to homes, the permitting process and others.

During the more than two-hour meeting, many longtime residents of the area claimed the Gazex system, which is based on exploding a propane/oxygen gas mixture inside an open metal tube, and the tests done during the 2017-18 season, were noticeably louder than any previous explosions (hand charges, artillery) they have heard while living in the area.

Trust between residents and the ski resort has become fractured over the years, a point Cohen brought up shortly into the Oct. 13 meeting after a reference toward transparency by Squaw Alpine was met with laughter from many in attendance.

"We are going to be completely transparent about this," said Cohen, "so that, when we have our next meeting about issues, when we talk about trusting each other and being transparent in the community that we live in, you all don't laugh, because you are a part of this too, and we have to have that relationship. I won't stand for being in charge of a company that gets that kind of reaction."

Permits from Placer

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Per a 2015 agreement, Placer County retains contractors to provide avalanche control service solely for the protection of Alpine Meadows Road.

Those services, according to the agreement, which lasts until 2022, are not intended to protect people or property in known or unknown avalanche paths.

"First permit was issued in 2015," said the county's Steven Pedretti on the construction of Gazex structures. "All of the information we had up to then, the study was done at base-to-base (Squaw to Alpine), showed that the sound and shockwaves were similar to what had been used in the past.

Locals in the area argued during the meeting the sounds and shockwave resulting from Gazex are much greater than previous mitigation techniques, and questioned why there wasn't further oversight due to the explosive materials used.

"This is what was taken into account by the county at the time. Again, I understand what (residents) are experiencing doesn't seem to be the same as what the studies are saying," said Pedretti.

"It's propane and it's less explosive than what was used previously," said Pedretti on the process of securing permits and a California Environmental Quality Act. "It's safer to transport. It's safer to house and it's safer to utilize."

Due to the outcry of residents, Pedretti said the county plans on being more cautious when it comes to future permits pertaining to Gazex structures.

"We've slowed things down now that we're aware of this issue" said Pedretti. "We want to make sure to do a full public review going forward."

Noise and concussive blasts

At its core, most residents raised issue over the sound, concussive blast, and lack of residential studies regarding Gazex, bringing up long-term effects to homes and other structures, potential for mudslides, and also concerns to the well-being of those living in the area.

"You're talking about quality of life impacts and I think the answer is no," said Cohen on a study on Gazex use around residential areas. "We haven't found (a study). We've asked the manufacturer, and they don't have one."

A lack of a study on the noise and acoustics of the valley was a sticking point for many residents, who said they weren't comfortable with the resort firing the lower four Gazex structures, which have yet to be used, in an effort to see what the impact would be this upcoming season.

"That's the scariest thing about that meeting. They have no clue, they have no data, or precedent for this," said resident Jared Drake.

"I have a 2-year-old and a new boy on the way. The World Health Organization, I actually got an email from (Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows) saying that the Gazex explodes at 125 decibels, and the World Health Organization says that they don't accept or advise, even for a fraction of a second, for a toddler or an infant to be exposed to anything over 120 … how do you reconcile the future of my children when it clearly hasn't been studied?"

Several other residents made claims that Gazex explosions, of which Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows set off between three and four times during seven different sessions occurring throughout the past ski season, were the largest they'd heard in decades of living in the valley. The resort and county said they are not liable for damage done to homes via Gazex or avalanches, man-made or natural.

Squaw officials said they also plan on looking into whether the Gazex exploders can be feathered down for smaller blasts.

Limited options

For the ski area, options for mitigating avalanches along Alpine Meadows Road are limited.

Hand charges have resulted in a trio of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski patroller deaths in the last eight years, and use of U.S. Army loaned howitzers are expected to come to an end soon, according to Cohen. Avalaunchers have also shown to be unsafe and have often resulted in unexploded "duds."

"It's extremely hazardous," said Casey Blann, senior vice president of mountain operations. "Three fatalities in the last eight years, and I had to talk to the wife of the ski patroller, who died recently up at Squaw and her 1-year-old son.

"We're in a position where we have real legal and ethical considerations. Not just the ones you are bringing up, but in asking patrollers to go in and risk their lives when there's an alternative piece of equipment."

Residents floated the installation of avalanche nets, but on a large scale, representatives from Squaw questioned the feasibility in terms of cost and effectiveness of installing the structures, which they said could be over-topped during heavy winters.

Moving forward

For the involved parties, there is still much to be sorted out.

Some residents have said they don't want the lower four of the Gazex structures to be used at all after hearing the four that are higher above homes go off this past season.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, whose only obligation is the road, said it plans on using the Gazex machines this season, but would be open to other solutions moving ahead.

"We want to run the Gazex this winter. We want to test as we go along. We will share all of the data with you as we go along," said Cohen.

"We will let (residents) know with all of these in advance, what's going on, what determinations are being made, what studies are being done. Neither the county or the ski area have an obligation to protect the homes … we care about the homes, but our obligation is the road."

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.