Groundwater in Jefferson County
One hundred years ago, underneath the Old Opera House in Charles Town, locals and tourists danced the night away beside a crystal-clear lake inside a cavern filled with orchestral tones. Today, the Lakeland Caverns cave is quiet, all entries sealed off from the public. The only physical connection to the community above is through surface waters, flowing into the cave’s once-pristine underground lake through a network of faults and fractures.
The connection between groundwater quality and surface activity is undeniable but often underappreciated. Out of sight and out of mind. But after every hard rain, every winter snowstorm, every spring flood — all that water has to go somewhere. Most of the time, it goes into the ground. Like a sponge, the earth slowly absorbs surface waters along with car oil, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, and industrial contaminants. When surface waters scour clean our streets, those contaminants have to go somewhere too.
In the Shenandoah Valley, recognizing this connection between surface contamination and groundwater contamination is even more relevant because of the prevalence of karst topography. Typical groundwater systems are like sponges, with numerous tiny pathways for water absorption and flow. But karst landscapes are like sponges right before they’re consigned to the trash — torn in several places, a few chunks missing to form holes. These tears and holes represent fractures in the bedrock, collapsed or hidden sinkholes, and underground caverns. In karst systems, these geologic features act as superhighways for water and contaminants to rapidly travel from the surface into and through the ground. Lakeland Caverns tells a story typical of this type of system.
The cavern under Charles Town’s Liberty Street was discovered in 1906 by a resident digging a foundation for a new building near his stable and delivery business. Upon entry, the man found a large room with a crystal-clear underground lake that measured approximately 30 feet by 125 feet before the cavern shrunk down again to meet the water’s edge. It was rumored that two young boys explored the cavern system further, despite a lack of modern scuba gear, and found themselves popping out in the area behind what is now the location of Southern States, near Beltline Avenue in Ranson.
In 1929, a Charles Town man by the name of C.P. Weller purchased the entry to the cave and developed the space into a thriving gathering place for the community. Lakeland Caverns, as it was named, offered dining, music, and boat rides on the cavern’s clear and lighted waters. Orchestras from Baltimore were hired to provide entertainment. Boats circled the lake throughout the evening. The Great Depression cut short Weller’s dream for the cavern, but the space was still in use as late as 1935 as a celebration venue for local students following commencement ceremonies. Eventually Lakeland Caverns and its ethereal lake were abandoned. Entryways into the cave below Charles Town remained open but unused. Out of sight and out of mind.
A Loss & A Burden
The fate of the cavern below Charles Town was officially decided in 1997. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) entered the cave to collect water samples and inspect the space. Sampling revealed the presence of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) in the water at a level of 4.59 parts per million. TPH is the result of the chemical breakdown of petroleum products, specifically diesel-range organic compounds. The WVDEP also noted that the water in the cavern smelled of fuel. In response to the inspection results, the community and WVDEP collectively decided to close and seal the remainder of the entrances to the cavern throughout Charles Town to reduce the risk of human contact with the contaminated air and water.
Unfortunately, West Virginia is no stranger to groundwater contamination. In a recent study by three major environmental groups, entitled ”Watered Down Justice,” 36 of West Virginia’s 55 counties were ranked worst in the nation in EPA water violation offenses. Historically, West Virginia’s primary sources of groundwater contamination included mining and drilling, heavy industry, agriculture, railyards, refineries, and fuel bulk terminals. With frequently lax state enforcement on corporate liability for contamination, the costs of remediation continue to burden future generations.
Documenting the Flow
An additional complexity — and concern — of groundwater contamination is that groundwater doesn’t remain underground but instead often flows to the nearest river or spring. In 1991, Mark D. Kozar, an Appalachian hydrogeological expert with the U.S. Geological Survey, and his associates performed a dye test to map the underground flow and interconnection of waterways in Jefferson County. For the study, various non-toxic dyes were introduced into sinkholes in the area, much like surface contaminants might enter the ground through sinkholes or open fractures. For the next four months after the dye was introduced, Kozar and his team monitored streams, springs, and waterways in the surrounding area for the presence of the dyes. The map of groundwater flow indicates the general groundwater flow documented from this USGS study.
One of the dye entry points for the 1991 study was near the Jefferson County Orchards (within a quarter mile of the current Rockwool industrial site). In less than two weeks, Kozar detected the dye introduced into this location in the following surface waterways: Rocky Marsh Spring (which feeds Rocky Marsh running along the western border of the County), Morgan Spring (which feeds The Town Run, the secondary water supply for the Shepherdstown water system), Rattlesnake Run (which flows through the agricultural areas around Shepherdstown, entering the Potomac at Knott Island), and Duffields Spring (which feeds the Elk Branch which originates in Duffields and enters the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry). These particular waterways are a source of recreation for the area’s children and families, are popular fishing spots, and are a main source of hydration for much of the area’s livestock. They are a source for, or share a water table with, nearly all of the area’s drinking water sources, both private and public.
Applying Current Standards
With groundwater contamination, prevention is preferable to remediation. In 2006, the WVDEP released guidelines for stormwater management with increased focus on the risk posed by industrial and commercial activity on groundwater quality in karst areas. The WVDEP highlighted how contaminants from stormwater and industrial runoff can rapidly enter karst groundwater systems through flow paths like sinkholes. These standards have been repeatedly referenced by local environmental groups in petitions to the WVDEP regarding the construction of the Rockwool industrial site in Jefferson County and allegations of improper reporting, filling, and remediation of sinkholes at the site. These groups have also used the WVDEP’s guidelines to push for increased scrutiny of the design and construction of holding ponds directly over areas at the Rockwool site that are prone to sinkhole collapse. The stated goal of these efforts is to prevent contamination before it happens.
The current status of Lakeland Caverns demonstrates how challenging it can be to clean-up a contaminated site. The source of the diesel contamination in the cavern and surrounding groundwater was never formally tracked. Water sampling has not been recently repeated, so it remains unknown whether the source of the contamination has been corrected. No remediation of Lakeland Cavern was known to have been applied by either the town or the WVDEP.
One potential pathway for cleanup of a contaminated site is through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Brownsfield Program. In this program, land is remediated for redevelopment. The WVDEP is responsible for outlining the types of development that can occur on the site in the future. These zoning decisions determine if the land can be used for industrial, commercial, or other types of activity. Thoughtful zoning decisions and transparent development practices are crucial to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, recontaminting the land once more.
Lakeland Caverns is both a lesson and a warning. Not protecting groundwater in karst areas like in Jefferson County can lead to lost opportunities for the community, a loss of tourism dollars, and a threat to public health. The ongoing question is whether Jefferson County can learn from the lessons of the past and maintain a commitment to sustain a healthy groundwater system.
Visit The Observer’s Sightline stories for related articles and resources about water in Jefferson County, West Virginia.