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

Preface: The need for this handbook

The need for this handbook

In the Unites States, 20% of the land surface is karst, and 40% of groundwater is stored in karst aquifers (Karst Waters Institute, 2010).  Usually underlain by limestone bedrock, karst landscapes are characterized by interior drainage. Rain falls to the ground and immediately disappears into sinkholes and caves.  Surface streams are rare in karst landscapes.

In karst areas, this groundwater flows through natural limestone cracks and conduits that range in diameter from a few millimeters to vast tunnels containing underground rivers. These waters discharge through springs to the surface. The term karst comes from the region in Slovenia of that name where the limestone land surface is riddled with sinkholes, cave openings and sinking streams.

Karst land is generally less suitable for development for the same reason that prudent developers avoid building in wetlands, on steep slopes, or in earthquake-prone areas – it is unstable land. As any farmer who grows crops on karst will tell you, a farm field on karst has a constantly changing surface. New sinkholes can open up suddenly under the wheels of a tractor or truck. The common practice of filling in sinkholes with debris does not last long. In a year or two, the continual flow of water into the drain at the bottom of most sinkholes will carry away baling wire, fenceposts, tree tops and trunks, or discarded machinery. In wet years, karst land can flood, water welling up out of the overfilled conduits below the surface.

Less desirable land often carries a bargain price tag.  Therefore, some developers think that building on karst is an opportunity to “buy low and sell high.”  Some developers may be ignorant of karst problems, but others hope that buyers will not become aware of the problems and hazards of karst before the developer has received his money and moved on.  

Too often developments on karst turn out to be costly, bad investments.  Building foundations, streets, and utility lines can crack and sink due to collapse and subsidence. Yards and basements can flood, and groundwater wells can become contaminated.  Public safety can be at risk. Too often, such “unforeseen” problems are termed “an Act of God.”  They are not.  They are the result of the sad truth: Ignore Karst, Build Now, Fix Later.

This handbook has been prepared to assist citizens who want to prevent a karst disaster in their community.  It outlines a tested step-by-step procedure for moving quickly to educate public officials, zoning and planning approval authorities, investors and lenders, buyers and taxpayers before they come up against expensive surprises. Real-world case studies are cited.

Why is a rapid response required?  Unscrupulous developers know that if they slide their plans through unknowing approval authorities and political officials with claims of “Jobs and Progress,” they often may gain construction approval before ordinary citizens are any wiser.  When concerned citizens do eventually learn the truth they are told, “It’s a done deal! You’re too late.”  Clearly a rapid rescue response is needed. Preparedness is gold!

Emergency rescue organizations of the type described in this handbook have proliferated in the past years for several reasons. The task of raising the public’s awareness of emergencies has shifted “first responder” capabilities from traditional police and fire units to specially trained and equipped rescue squads.  Emergencies such as injury accidents require urgent medical care.  In all such situations, effective emergency response includes dealing with formidable environmental challenges plus speed and expert removal and transport skills.

Less urgently than emergency responders, but perhaps equally important, is the need for a fast response “cave saving” task force, embodying specialized expertise in science, politics, legal challenges, and public relations.  Recent experiences in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia demonstrate the urgent need for a rapid response karst and cave rescue team. In Tennessee, the threat was to Rumbling Falls Cave, where a municipality proposed to build a sewage treatment plant atop the largest cave room in the state – a national treasure.

Farther north, the Kentucky Transpark used complex questionable political maneuvers to claim exemption from Environmental Impact Study preparation in a federalized project and to silence discussion on an industrial park karst site above an underground river, near Bowling Green and Mammoth Cave National Park

Also in Kentucky, state politicians and officials proposed building I-66 across several important karst areas in Kentucky’s Pulaski and Laurel counties, with insufficient environmental and construction expertise. Limestone quarries have been proposed in areas with significant cave rivers and endangered species that would be impacted by this industrial activity.

In West Virginia, a team of developers, a contractor, and state officials tried to build a regional sewage plant on a karst floodplain by systematically violating the law, disregarding sound civil engineering practices, and ignoring expert and public opinion.

These are all recent examples of situations where a karst rapid response team was needed, to ensure protection of land value, community life, and water quality from unthinking, unheeding development on risky terrain.

Also, opportunities to save caves may come about over a number of years, and some may arise suddenly.  Sometimes a farm with notable caves comes to market due to an owner’s death.  Developers may seize such opportunities to lock up cave properties before dedicated cave conservation groups can respond with effective protection measures.  Clearly, a rapid multi-faceted, effective emergency response to cave threats or cave opportunities is needed. 

The authors hope you will find immediately useful information in this handbook. Remember, every situation is unique, so we offer general principles rather than hard and fast rules.  Tailor your actions to your situation and circumstances.  And by all means, contact the Karst Rapid Response Network the minute you learn of a cave and karst threat.  We will put you in touch with expert assistance.

Roger Brucker, Hilary Lambert, George Phillips,
Leslie Barras, Tom Barr, and Tom Poulson.

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