West Virginia Geology: Environmental

Dividing Line

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. sinkhole 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.

landfill 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 decision process.

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). acid mine drainage 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

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