Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.

Karst Floodplain Site for Sewage Treatment Plant?

Wednesday September 13, 2006
Karst Environmental Education and Protection

By Roger Brucker

Pocahontas County, WV County Commissioners want to bring JOBS! DEVELOPMENT! PROGRESS! to their community in an impoverished section of West Virginia, near some of that state's significant caves. They already have a big ski resort on top of a mountain, but the season only lasts so long. For economic survival many lots have been sold off for second homes. A developer wants to add still more homes. However, there's a little problem.

Sewage from the resort and homes overwhelms the inadequate sewage treatment plant. Heavy fines have been levied. Wastewater dribbles and trickles down the mountain and efforts to conceal the problem have come to nose. "We need a big new sewage plant at taxpayer expense!" said the developers to the commissioners.

A new $11,000,000 plant has been proposed to be located on a nice level field in the narrow valley at the foot of the mountain. The site is the Sharp Farm, a 150-year old historic farm, location of a bed and breakfast and a general store. Tom Shipley said the farm's prehistoric occupants left behind chipped stone artifacts, and that Gen. Robert E. Lee's southern forces camped there early in the Civil War. Tom is a descendant of the Sharp family. The sewage treatment plant is to be located on the only flat area between two streambeds.

"It's above the floodplain": Corps of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers declared the land to be above the 100-year floodplain. They never inspected it, but simply drew a line along a contour 40 feet up. An engineering firm designed the proposed plant but never investigated the site. Had they done so they would have found three things:

  1. The field floods regularly, and Tom's photos show the wide torrent boiling over the road and bridges.
  2. The field is a karst floodplain and Tom's photos show various sizes of collapsed sinkhole basins.
  3. During heavy rains water boils up through some of the sinkholes and overflows the field.

To prevent condemnation by eminent domain, Tom and others argued unsuccessfully that the site is not suitable. The judge is reported to have said "It looks like a good place to me." Plea denied. Case closed.

According to George Deike, III, a geologist living nearby who cut his doctoral teeth on the Mammoth Cave area karst, one of the streambeds is dry much of the year because the water is diverted underground. The underground river capacity is limited, so floods overwhelm it. Dye trace evidence shows that the underground drainage goes into two important trout streams. Any elevation of stream temperature due to effluent is likely to cause a trout die off in the finest set of trout streams in the east.

"The irony is that a couple of miles down the valley they could have sited the treatment plant on sandstone on a state-owned property," said Deike. He believes that greed and politics are the drivers of the project to locate the sewage plant on Tom Shipley's karst floodplain. "Competent planners would not do that; there's no right way to do the wrong thing."

What KarstEEP Has Done

We equipped Tom Shipley with a PowerPoint presentation to dramatize the $11 million mistake. It will use Tom's dramatic photos to show the flooding, sinkholes, and upward "boil holes". We sent him plans for a live demo. It will show, using masonite pegboard, how a model plant cannot be built safely on a karst floodplain. The water washing over it will damage it, and water coming up from below will defeat any levy. In the meantime, other cavers are moving into the fight that is pitting the County Commissioners and developers vs. taxpayers who have already defeated the reelection bid of one of the commissioners who voted to build on Sharp Farm.

Spokesman Brucker said: "I believe education is essential in this complicated case. We want to equip Tom and his friends to bring a better understanding of the economic, social, and environmental risk of building a plant that is certain to collapse, flood, and contaminate." Reminded of the criticism when he broke a plate to demonstrate karst collapse potential at a public meeting in Kentucky, Brucker said, "Remember Dishman Lane, a $1 million example of poor karst planning."