The Hawks Nest Tunnel is in the midst of a long-in-coming checkup.

This summer, Brookfield Renewable revealed plans for an ambitious project at one of the West Virginia properties it owns, the Hawks Nest Dam. Officials said at the time the enterprise would result in the first inspection of the Hawks Nest Tunnel since it was completed in the 1930s.

"Under our ownership we have never had anyone enter the tunnel and to our knowledge, our predecessors had not entered since construction," said Brian Noonan, Brookfield Renewable's manager of stakeholder relations.

While the Hawks Nest Tunnel de-watering project is still ongoing, Brookfield officials took time on Thursday, Oct. 15 to give local media a tour and an update.

For the project, the Hawks Nest Reservoir — which was originally created for the purpose of power generation — was lowered 25 feet to create safe conditions for those working on the current endeavor. The work began Sept. 8 and has a targeted completion date of Nov. 11, barring inclement weather or other delays. At that point, water levels will be brought back up, officials say, and all public recreation and access will be re-opened.

The impacts have varied depending on where people are in the area of the lake. Some areas are extremely low, while the water is 65 feet in the area of the dam. Officials stress that sufficient water for fish and other aquatic wildlife has been available.

Construction on the 3-mile Hawks Nest Tunnel began around 1930 for the intent of delivering water from the New River through Gauley Mountain to a downstream hydroelectric plant to produce electricity for the plant at Alloy, then owned by Union Carbide. Besides its breadth, the tunnel project is significant for exposing thousands of workers to silica. Unsafe conditions at the time — including toiling without masks or breathing equipment — exposed the workers to high levels of silica dust, and many eventually developed silicosis and died. Various historical accounts peg the number of workers who perished from the debilitating lung disease ranging from 109 to in excess of 1,000. A Congressional hearing at the time established a death toll of 476 from 1930 to 1935.

Moving ahead to present day, the tunnel inspection has involved a thorough effort to determine if any repair work is necessary. A specific focus of the inspection is where the tunnel meets the powerhouse.

While thousands of workers were inside in the 1930s as they bored through sandstone to create the tunnel, the current inspection work features no employees being in the tunnel interior. Instead, remote operated vehicles are being utilized.

The simple aim of the inspection is to ensure the structural safety of the tunnel/powerhouse, said Noonan.

Noonan said no major issues have been discovered during the inspection so far. "Thus far, the interior is sound. We have not found any issues. This is a testament to the craftsmanship of the workers who built this facility nearly 100 years ago." Nothing unusual or unexpected has been discovered during the work.

"It looks great; it looks like it did in 1930," Kevin Moriarty, operations manager for Brookfield Renewable, said at the outset of the tour.

"This project is critical to dam safety and public safety," said Andy Davis, Brookfield Renewable's senior director of strategic relationships. "With less than a month to go, everything thus far is on schedule and we are grateful for the hard work of our employees and contractors on site.

"We are also very appreciative of the public's patience and understanding as we continue working on this large-scale project. We understand that everyone is eager for the recreation sites to re-open, and we are cognizant of this. As soon as the project is complete and we can safely re-open everything, we will certainly do so."

"As you can see from the magnitude of the work, this is a substantial investment into the Hawks Nest facility that shows our commitment to public safety and ensuring our assets are always top notch," Noonan said. "These assets are perpetual assets that last decades, if not centuries. Our investment reflects our commitment to generating clean, renewable energy in West Virginia for generations to come."

Among the closures during the construction have been a local hiking and biking trail, as well as a tailrace fishing platform and parking area adjacent to the Hawks Nest Hydroelectric station.

The project has allowed the area known as "The Dries" to experience the full flow of the New River this fall, as a normal flow of nearly 10,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) of water that would normally go into the tunnel has been diverted downstream below the dam, creating rare opportunities for kayakers in the area.

In addition to the inspection, other projects being completed by Brookfield and its contractors include replacing panels in a surge basin and upgrades at the Hawks Nest Hydroelectric Plant, which allows the water that courses through the tunnel to create the necessary hydroelectric power. At the hydro plant, a transmission tower is being replaced, and isolation valves that feed water to the turbines are being overhauled. Other equipment is being replaced, as well.

"This is original equipment," said Moriarty. "Eighty years of good life, and we need to make repairs now."

With work going 24/7 on the project, there are about 110 workers on site, according to Noonan.

The Hawks Nest facility "generates roughly 529,236 MW annually (on long term average), all of which is consumed directly by West Virginia Alloy," Noonan said.

"This is an ongoing project that will improve efficiencies and reliability as well as ensure public safety," said Noonan. "We have indeed invested a substantial amount of capital and resources into the asset, as we do for all of our facilities across our platform. We consider ourselves long term owners and integral members of the communities where we operate, and this is a prime example of our commitment to our operation.

"The end result is to continue to provide reliable, renewable energy to our great partner downstream in West Virginia Alloy."

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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