Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park

Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park
Keller Shaft, Mammoth Cave National Park, Photo by Roger Brucker

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Introduction & Case Studies of rapid response to a karst crisis

Responding quickly and effectively to a karst crisis

Case Study #1 in Karst Rapid Response
A “Done Deal” in West Virginia

People sometimes give up right away when they learn that a new road is going to take their land, a strip mine is going to fill in a nearby creek, or a cornfield with a cave river under it is going to have an airport runway built on it. They hear the rumors and they say, “It’s a done deal. Nothing can be done.” 

In fact, there is no such thing as a “done deal.” This handbook is full of examples that show the done deal myth comes true only if people close their eyes and put their heads in the sand. If instead they create an organization, get legal and expert help, and make some noise, that done deal vanishes like the mirage it truly is. The hard part? Saving caves and karst from development takes a lot of work, sometimes over a very long period of time, and requires constant vigilance.

Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says, “They cannot win if you do not quit.” If your group is facing a threat to caves, karstlands, or to any other part of the environment you care about, you will have to take the long, wide, tall view: You will not ever be able to quit, so organize a comprehensive, long-term campaign to protect your cave/karst site, involving many moving parts, in coordination with numerous groups, experts and allies.

A recent example of a cave-saving organization’s quick, comprehensive response to a cave and karst threat illustrates real-world implementation of this handbook’s basic principles.  It points the way for adaptation to other cave and karst conservation challenges, and for karst problem prevention.

The WVCC (West Virginia Cave Conservancy), founded in 1997, is an organization of caver volunteers established to protect significant caves in the state.  When plans were disclosed to construct a $20 million sewage treatment plant at Slatyfork WV on a karst floodplain, WVCC established the Upper Elk River Task Force to oppose the development on the basis that it threatened a significant wild cave area.  The group began to gather factual information about the plans.  They discovered that the project had already received an environmental FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) from state EPA approval authorities.

Testimony and evidence from the caving community and karst experts was ignored, and there was total acceptance of the unqualified reports, prepared by the developer’s own consultants, that the plant posed no environmental risks.  The judge prohibited the introduction of factual evidence. At this point the Task Force’s leaders saw that legal action might be the only way to stop the project.  WVCC’s constraints on the Task Force included that no action could be taken without full board approval of the WVCC.  The possibility for quick response was limited by policy, and by the reluctance of some board members to engage in an expensive legal fight that might jeopardize the parent group’s main conservation emphasis.

KarstEEP (Karst Environmental Education and Protection, Inc.), a Kentucky-based organization with experience in fighting karst and cave threats, advised the task force to seek independence from its parent organization.  The task force was separated under friendly terms and encouraged to go its own way.  Thus was born a brand new organization, Eight Rivers Safe Development, Inc., a 501(c) 3 nonprofit West Virginia corporation.  Pocahontas County, home of the proposed site, is known as the headwaters of eight rivers – hence, a local name associated with safe development rather than environmentalism.

A key idea behind the strategy was an observation by cave geologist Dr. Art Palmer: “Challenges to save caves and karst must be won on economic and political grounds.  Appeals to cave conservation values have little effect on the general public.”  Eight Rivers Safe Development has positioned itself as a champion of SAFE development on karst, and an enemy of unsafe development. 

Eight Rivers Safe Development Inc. was formed to advocate for the conservation and protection of karst, caves, and karst landscapes, and to promote safe development on karst terrains. The organization is centered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia — home to some of the most beautiful wild cave and coldwater stream resources in the eastern United States.

Eight Rivers welcomed support from all who value safe development as a key to our economic health, and is part of a growing coalition of cavers, anglers, property owners, recreation groups, and conservation organizations who are opposed to a regional sewage treatment plant project for this area, due to the risk of irreversible harm this project and other development initiatives pose to the Upper Elk River watershed.

Within 30 days of its founding, the new corporation had accomplished the following:

  • Obtained a mailing address in Pocahontas County.
  • Sent out comprehensive white papers to several caving organizations.
  • Composed and sent news releases to several caver news magazines.
  • Raised $6500 for legal challenges.
  • Opened a bank account in the name of the new corporation.
  • Investigated and retained an attorney to challenge the due diligence of officials.
  • Written and published a brochure describing the situation for cavers and the public.
  • Made a major presentation for funds and support to the NSS Board of Governors.
  • Written a comprehensive story for the national NSS News.
  • Created a comprehensive Web site:
  • Conducted a site visit for the organization’s attorney and a geology class.
  • Compiled photos and prepared a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Contacted affinity organizations for financial and other support, such as trout fishermen and river protection groups.
  • Filed an official FOIA request for all relevant records in the case from a state agency.
  • Established formal and informal agreements with technical consultants.
  • Written Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws for the new organization.
  • Attended an all-day watershed groups capacity-building workshop in Lexington KY.

Over time, the group pressed ahead with all of the strategies listed in this handbook outline including fundraising, network building, coalition building, education, and public relations. Here are two examples of their efforts.

Education:  This handbook emphasizes the role of effective education in changing the minds of decision authorities and the public.  Such education has a goal of building understanding of the risks of ignoring karst threats and ignoring the law. In West Virginia, where Eight Rivers Safe Development has conducted an intensive educational campaign, it is clear from questions and comments in public meetings and in letters to the editor that the public “gets it.”  It’s about the drinking water and the fishing water.  It’s about sticking taxpayers and ratepayers for millions of dollars of sewage treatment that will only benefit private developers.

As a part of the West Virginia campaign, a caver who is a chemical engineer helped propose a less expensive alternative solution to the real sewage problem. The developer’s engineering consultant had a vested interest in selling “old technology” and did its best to torpedo the alternative proposal, aided by the bonding attorney who stood to profit from a more expensive solution.  Clear heads in the educated citizenry have backed a comprehensive watershed plan that supports the alternative proposal.

Organization incorporation and coalition building:  Eight Rivers Safe Development was incorporated rapidly to gain standing, file a challenge, and raise money.  The president of the organization put together a coalition of organizations who supported a common purpose of saving the Elk River and the cave systems from an undesirable multimillion dollar sewage treatment plant. Developers may be quick to brand any opposition as the work of “out-of-towners,” “tree-huggers,” or “environmental wackos.”  That is why a strong local base of concern and organization is necessary to be able to talk about OUR community, OUR water supply, and OUR taxes.

Several articles in trout fishing magazines brought strong support from fly fishers, and their organizations joined the coalition.  A strong coalition of respectable organizations answers the question by the developers:  “Who says we are doing the wrong thing?” To enlist other organizations, a presentation to their Board of Directors is usually essential.  The Eight Rivers road show was staged for all the coalition partners before they agreed to support the cause.

In the years since Eight Rivers was established, a combination of unrelenting vigilance, attending all public hearings, making public presentations, and having an alert, responsive attorney all add up to the fact that to date, the sewer plant has not been built on the karst floodplain.

Cave and karst hydrogeologist Dr. Ralph Ewers has said, “You can build anything on karst, IF money is no object.”  One could build a sewage plant on the moon if money were no object.  The Eight Rivers group regards the plan to build an expensive sewage treatment plan on a karst floodplain as impractical as building one on the moon.

George Phillips  Scott Depot, West Virginia

Roger Brucker  Beavercreek, Ohio

Case Study #2 in Karst Rapid Response
Saving Rumbling Falls Cave in Tennessee

In the first few months of this century, a movement arose in the little town of Spencer, Tennessee, to construct a sewage disposal plant and dump the effluent into a sinkhole that led directly into the underground river in the newly discovered Rumbling Falls Cave. The events described here began in 2002 and were concluded in 200Eight.

It began because a developer wanted to build resort “cabins” overlooking the gorge of Cane Creek, which drains most of Fall Creek Falls State Park. State regulations would require him to build a sewage treatment plant and lay pipes to all of his “cabins,” but he reasoned that the little town had no sewage treatment plant (the only town in the state that didn’t!), and ought to be eligible for Federal and State grants to construct one. To help the process along, he donated a small plot of land for the plant adjacent to where he hoped to build his resort “cabins.” The town needed a sewage treatment system, so it was not hard to get them to go along with the plan. At that time the huge size and extent of Rumbling Falls Cave was known only to a few cave explorers.

Unfortunately, cave explorers wanted to keep secret their discoveries of a huge room and three miles of immense river passage. Secrecy nearly led to disastrous pollution of the cave system. But the details were publicized in time by a group of caver-activists led by the Nashville Grotto (a chapter of the National Speleological Society), partnered with the Tennessee Environmental Council and the Tennessee chapter of The Nature Conservancy

Chris Anderson from Kentucky supplied a spectacular photo of the immense Rumble Room, nearly 300 feet high and five acres in area. It appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean, “above the fold,” and was picked up by several other daily newspapers around the US. Local activists followed up two weeks later with color photos of cave animals that were endangered by the sewage effluent, and this second major picture block was made part of the campaign to protect Rumbling Falls Cave. A news conference was held in Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville, and data were presented showing that over 30 species of obligate cave animals inhabited this cave system.

The story continues, in the words of Tom Barr:
The Nashville Grotto and its partners worked together to fight this sewage plant. For a year we fought the Water Pollution Control Board. We had to operate in so-called “Administrative Law,” which resembled the trial of the Knave of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After losing repeatedly before the Water Pollution Control Board, which we felt was politically biased, we finally earned the right to go before Chancery Court in Davidson County (Tennessee’s capital county of Nashville), where we won hands down.

The State was ordered to reformulate its rules for degrading top tier (unpolluted or slightly polluted) streams, and Spencer was ordered to come up with a plan for disposing of the effluent other than letting it run into a sinkhole draining into the huge cave system. The eventual conclusion has been that the Spencer sewage effluent is now pumped across the road and sprayed out in a “land application.”  This is what the conservation groups had recommended in the first place. Four years after the court order, an agreement was signed between the city of Spencer and all parties to the legal action.

As in any environmental struggle, raising money and hiring a good lawyer were essential in the Rumbling Falls Cave fight. We were fortunate to have the services of Joe Caleb, Nashville environmental attorney, and he was assisted pro bono by Nashville Grotto’s Chuck Mangelsdorf. Two further tactics were key in eventual victory in this case:

1) We succeeded in creating a big splash in the state capital’s newspaper, the Nashville Tennessean, where the spectacular picture of the Rumble Room made front page news. All the state legislators saw it, so did the Governor’s office, and of course, the public. The followup with photos of the blind cave fauna showed rare creatures that would be killed by having the sewage effluent dumped into the cave. The cave contains the largest known populations of cave crayfish and blind cavefish in Tennessee, and they are directly in the path of the effluent. Several of us gave local Nashville TV interviews, whether we were on the street in front of the TDEC offices with posters, or sitting in the hearing room.

2) Funds from The Nature Conservancy were used to hire a nationally-known cave expert to perform a detailed bioinventory of the cave system. The total number of obligate subterranean species exceeded 30, which places this cave system in the top category of “hot spots” worldwide of subterranean diversity.

The expert’s report, along with the statement that I filed with the court, both described the manner and biological effects by which the effluent would destroy the delicate cave ecosystem. The Tennessee office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service supported us in arguing for the ecological, scientific, and educational value of this exceptionally rich fauna, even though none of these cave species has yet been designated as Federally endangered.

In summary, raise money and hire a good lawyer; make a big splash with publicity to explain your cause to the general public, state or local politicians, and Federal government; and if the cave harbors a significant fauna of obligate creatures, develop and play up information on them. Once destroyed, they are gone forever; the cave itself could recover. If you have an endangered species inhabiting the cave, you can invoke Federal law to help you. Get help from a cave biologist to point out the significance of the fauna you are trying to protect.

Thomas C. Barr   Nashville, Tennessee

Case Study #3 in Karst Rapid Response
Quarry Threatens Waters that Nourish Endangered Species

Boyds Knob near Munfordville, KY is a beautiful hill that rises in a rural farming area adjacent to the Green River.  Several families live nearby and have long enjoyed the scenic knob landscape, including a 100-plus year-old cemetery where some of the original pioneers are buried. A neighbor, owner of the knob, was approached by a large quarry operator who already mined a quarry near Bowling Green, KY, 40 miles away.  Their plan: to immediately drill and blast the limestone knob day and night, crush rock, store various grades of crushed rock, and load and dispatch heavy dump trucks over rural roads barely wide enough for two cars to pass. The farm owner would get rich while the operator literally hauled the farm away.
One nearby neighbor, alarmed at the prospect of 24-hour noise, dust, and heavy traffic, contacted KEEP.  The neighbor was advised to form a nonprofit organization so contributions could be solicited and accepted, and to issue news releases.  Friends of Green River was officially established, though not incorporated.  Donations were accepted by arrangement with a supportive 501 c 3 corporation. Reviewing the permit application documents and consulting old caving maps of the area, KEEP recognized that an eight-mile cave containing a river had been surveyed nearby and that several karst springs emptied into the Green River.  The spring discharge point was just upstream of a gravel bar containing federally-designated endangered species of mussels.

The new organization raised funds via emails, letters, and personal requests, and hired an expert hydrogeologist.  As the official representative of the citizens group, he was allowed oversight over and review of dye trace research and results produced by the quarry’s consultant.  The scientific study concluded that an active quarry’s limestone dust, grease and other toxic chemicals would drain via sinkholes into underground streams and emerge in the Green River.  The mussels, dependent on filtering clean water, would be in danger of being killed by any bad quarry discharge.

Faced with a clear threat as defined by the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, and the expensive mitigation measures that would have been required to protect the mussels, the operator withdrew his offer to buy the knob.  Accompanying swift actions by the new organization included publishing a newsletter describing the situation, sending letters to the local newspaper editor, providing information to reporters for their stories, mounting downtown window displays, sending direct mail to neighbors likely to be affected, and carrying out a survey of water levels in sinkholes and ponds on adjacent properties, in case of damage caused by blasting. Officers of the new organization interviewed several nearby quarry operators and learned there was no truth to the developer’s assertion that quarry materials were in short supply and therefore the proposed quarry was vital for “jobs and progress.” The new quarry did not open.

Roger Brucker  Beavercreek, Ohio

Hilary Lambert  Ithaca, NY

The three case studies described on the preceding pages are examples of the many challenges facing surface karst landscapes and the subterranean rivers and cave systems that lie below:

  • A sewage treatment plant – proposed for a karst flood plain underlain by caves and a subterranean river, it would also drain into a high-quality upland surface river;
  • A sewage treatment plant – proposed to drain into a subterranean river within a newly-discovered major cave system;
  • A limestone quarry – proposed for a rural residential and farming area, it would drain via karst conduits to a major regional surface river upstream of endangered species and a national park.

The recommendations provided for karst rapid response in the following pages are based on the responses developed to cope with these and other real-life situations in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. This Handbook can help cave and karst conservation organizations and their allies to determine the type of threat they face and how best to manage and defuse it, for both rapid response to a crisis and for longer-term karst and cave protection. 

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