- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

OSO, Wash. (AP) - Some local workers citing safety concerns have walked off the job as the Washington Transportation Department works to clear a section of state Route 530 buried in muddy debris from the deadly Oso mudslide.

The workers are calling for the effort to slow down for safety and to allow them to better inspect the material for human remains and personal effects, The Daily Herald of Everett reported. Several people walked out Sunday and more quit on Monday, the newspaper reported.

The exact number of those involved was not clear late Monday.

Transportation Department spokesman Travis Phelps confirmed the walkout and said all safety complaints are investigated immediately. In this case, he said inspectors found the area to be safe.

The March 22 mudslide that buried dozens of homes also covered a section of the highway. The slide killed 41 people and left two missing.

Workers say they were told to work in poor footing and even during violent weather like Sunday’s thunder and lightning, KING-TV reported.

On Sunday, “I had people sinking up to their waist and their thighs trying to navigate their way,” Rhonda Cook told the Herald. Cook was one of the spotters who also worked in the debris fields during the recovery effort until it was suspended on April 28.

She said the spotters are as eager as everyone else to see the highway reopen. However, they also feel a responsibility to the affected families to do the work correctly.

“We just all get a feeling we are being paid to do a job we just can’t do,” she said.

There have been no accidents or injuries since the highway cleanup started, Phelps said. Several hundred truckloads of debris are removed each day. So far, crews have cleared roughly half of the 900,000 cubic yards of muddy debris that buried the highway.

Transportation officials say state archaeologists watch shovels when they break ground. Local spotters scan the material as it’s poured into trucks. The trucks haul the debris to a nearby dump, where more archaeologists look for recoverable items.

Crews are on track to have the road cleared by month’s end, Phelps said. Then they plan to stabilize slopes along the highway for safety.

The roughly mile-long stretch of Route 530 could open by late June, although it would be in rough shape, Transportation Department officials told Gov. Jay Inslee last week.

Even opening the highway to one-way, piloted traffic would provide a faster, safer link to Interstate 5 for the town of Darrington, which was cut off by the mudslide. Local traffic is currently using a power-line access road detour.

A fully rebuilt highway is expected to open by October.

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