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Karst: It’s where we live

By Delegate John Doyle - Report From the Legislature | Feb 5, 2021

Jefferson County sits on a block of “karst.” That’s terrain constituted mostly of porous, soluble rock (in our case largely limestone), and is marked by sinkholes and caves.

Much of eastern West Virginia is karst, although the nature of that karst varies from region to region. Karst terrain is found as far west as eastern Monongalia County and as far south as Monroe County. But no county has a greater percentage of terrain that is karst than Jefferson.

Groundwater behaves differently in karst than it does in other types of terrain. Underground streams flow in different directions, and can change direction, so we don’t always know where underground water’s been, and therefore if it’s polluted. And underground water sometimes surfaces into small streams.

Well over half of Jefferson County gets its drinking water from groundwater. Some public water systems use it, and everyone with a well uses it. But nothing in our state’s groundwater protection statute acknowledges differences between karst and other types of terrain.

I’d like to change that.

For the last two months I’ve been working with a couple dozen people to craft a bill, which I’ll introduce in the upcoming Regular Session of the West Virginia Legislature, to require the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to pay attention to karst. I thank every one of those folks who helped out, and I’d like to name them in this column, but I don’t have room.

By our state constitution, the session begins Feb. 10 and lasts for 60 calendar days.

DEP does have rules that apply to karst, but I think groundwater protections for karst should be written into a statute. And I don’t think the rules DEP now has are strong enough.

As an example, let’s use the controversy over Rockwool, the stone wool insulation plant being built in the far rural reaches of the City of Ranson. Much of the media attention has focused on the problems with air pollution from that plant. But I think the citizens of our county are as concerned about the water we drink as about the air we breathe.

The federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends against using containment ponds for stormwater management in karst topography (possibly because sinkholes are unpredictable). But DEP rules permit ponds, so Rockwool is therefore permitted. And West Virginia has what is called “primacy” in environmental protection. That means the state’s decision stands, despite what the federal government says.

Primacy is not automatic, and is supposed to mean that the state’s law is no weaker than the federal recommendation. And remember, the EPA’s position of the last four years was the position of President Donald Trump’s EPA. We now have President Joe Biden’s EPA to issue recommendations.

It will be difficult to pass this karst groundwater protection bill, but I hope we can. If we can, the next time a heavy industrial giant wishes to come to Jefferson County, we would have ready for use an important tool to protect our drinking water.

John Doyle is a delegate for the West Virginia District 67. He can be reached at johndoyle@wvhouse.gov.