West Virginia Geology: Environmental
Although the phrase "Environmental Geology" is relatively new, the Survey
has been practicing the concept since its inception in 1897. Basically,
environmental geology is the application of geological data and information
for people's needs and the improvement of our environment. Included in
environmental geology studies are such topics as landslides, landfills,
potable water supplies, flooding, mineral resources, and earthquakes. Some
of these we want to find and use wisely (mineral resources, water
supplies), others we wish to avoid (landslides, earthquakes, subsidence, and
floods), while others we desperately need, but want them to be safe
(landfills, earthen dams). All of these subjects can make use of geology
to a very great extent, and it is the purpose of environmental geology to
provide the basic geological information so that people can understand it and
use it properly.
Geological hazards such as landslides, earthquakes, subsidence, and
floods, have been studied extensively in West Virginia.
Landslides represent the mass movement of rock and soil material downslope
due to gravity. Several factors contribute to triggering landslides, but
the most important ones are heavy rains, clay soil, and steep slopes. Our
studies indicate that there are nearly 500,000 landslides in the State and damage estimates are about 30 million
dollars annually (see our publication EGB-15). Earthquakes are not common in
West Virginia, but since 1758 there have been dozens that have occurred in
the Appalachians and felt in the State (see our publication EGB-12).
Subsidence is the collapse of the ground surface over a void, whether natural
or man-made. Two general conditions in the State cause subsidence: natural
collapse over limestone caves and caverns, and man-made collapse over coal
mines. Floods are common in West Virginia because of heavy rains and narrow
stream valleys. Some floods are also man-made, such as the Buffalo Creek
disaster in 1972 when an earthen dam broke.
Another hazard is radon, a natural radioactive decay product of
many rocks in the State. Much needs to be done to understand just which rock
types are the major contributors and what are the areal extent of these
rocks. Part of the problem of higher-than-normal radon in houses is the
specific construction of the houses: old or new? vented or not? cracks in
basements and walls? Radioactive decay is also a man-made problem due to the
need to dispose of low-level radioactive waste (LLW) from hospitals and
industry. Although West Virginia produces LLW, it is transported
out-of-state for disposal at the present time (see our publication C-21). In
the future, we may have to take care of it ourselves.
Landfills are necessary in all states to provide proper disposal of
garbage, so that the leachate generated from its decomposition does not
pollute the ground water. Environmental geology plays an important role in
identifying the proper rock, soil, topography, and water conditions so that
it can really be called a sanitary landfill. The location of a landfill
should avoid limestone, sandstone, and alluvium; avoid all steep slopes; and
avoid faults, fractures, and exposed bedding planes (see our publication EGB-1-7).
And like many environmental problems and hazards, the geologist must
realize that financial, social, and political aspects play major roles in any
Water is our most essential mineral resource, providing drinking water,
navigation, recreation, and is indispensable for agriculture, industry, the
generation of electricity, and a host of other uses. In West Virginia, we use
about 25 to 30 billion gallons per day. Most of this water is not
consumed but returned almost immediately back to the creeks and rivers (see
our publications C-24, 28, 35, 37, 39, and 41).
Potable drinking water is probably the most important and one of the jobs of
environmental geology is to locate these sources, whether a nearby creek or a
location for a well. Water wells tap the ground water, but the geologist
must know the rock types and structure in order to properly locate a well
site that may produce enough water to provide the needs of a household or
development. The pollution of surface and ground water is a constant problem
in West Virginia, primarily due to sewage and acid mine drainage. Large
sewage treatment plants and small septic tank systems are the domain of the
State Health Department and their use is increasing, although they are
expensive. Acid mine drainage has been studied extensively and again,
treatment is improving, but the cost factors are large. Although the
environmental geologist does get involved with these last two areas, they are
primarily under the regulatory control of other State agencies.
Environmental geology uses many of the specialties of geology such as
stratigraphy, structure, hydrology, and related areas of chemistry, physics,
biology, and mining methods. All of these disciplines assist in one way or
another to solve a problem or provide a solution to a situation in
environmental geology. It then becomes the job of the environmental
geologist to synthesize and piece together the critical information in a
format for the homeowner, government agency, or a public group to comprehend.
(by Peter Lessing, July 1996)
For more information, see Environmental Geology Bulletins
Page last revised: September 28, 2004
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West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey
Address: Mont Chateau Research Center
1 Mont Chateau Road
Morgantown, WV 26508-8079
Telephone: 1-800-WV-GEOLOgy (1-800-984-3656) or 304-594-2331
Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. EST, Monday - Friday
Permission to reproduce this material is granted if acknowledgment is given
to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.