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Toxic Dumps | Fall 2011 Out Here Magazine

Nearly 3,000 tons of waste — some of it hazardous — have been removed from Central Pennsylvania sinkholes since the ClearWater Conservancy began its annual cleanup day.

Trash-filled sinkholes pose danger to underground water

By Noble Sprayberry
Photography courtesy of ClearWater Conservancy

In the valleys of Central Pennsylvania’s mountain-lined farm country, dumping trash often meant filling one of the many natural depressions dotting the landscape.

“It was easy for everyone to dispose of their waste by going to the hole and just putting it in there, because it was just a hole,” says Jennifer Shuey, executive director of the ClearWater Conservancy in State College, Pa.

But these were no ordinary holes. Instead, these sinkholes provide a direct pipeline from the surface to the underground water — the aquifer — supplying much of the region’s drinking water.

Packing sinkholes full of junk meant runoff from surrounding mountains filtered through layers of trash as it flowed toward the aquifer. Laws against such dumping, enacted some 30 years ago, largely stopped the practice. Yet, the area remains dotted with trash-filled sinkholes, consisting of garbage dumped before — and after — it was illegal.

For 15 years, the ClearWater Conservancy has focused on removing the junk, to illustrate the need to tend to these natural doorways to the region’s water supply.

The lessons apply to property owners elsewhere across the country who have sinkholes on their property.

The list of items removed from sinkholes is long and diverse, including metal, old cars, farm equipment, couches and much, much more.

“We have found a full one-quart container of herbicide in a sinkhole. The container was rusty but it hadn’t rusted through yet,” Shuey says. “Those are just some of the things that people should have known better than to put there.”

When a group of volunteers unearthed a Jeep several years ago, the conservancy realized the need for reinforcements. Several area companies volunteered heavy equipment and crews to help with the cleanup.

One recent effort focused on a sinkhole 100 feet in diameter with a natural stream flowing into it, says Chris Finton, a senior hydrogeologist with Meiser & Earl Inc., in State College, Pa. “We found old tires and farm equipment in it.”

The Pennsylvania sinkholes can be as deep as 100 feet or more, requiring long-reach, earth-moving equipment to access the deepest junk.

“Many of these are historic farm dumps, and others would bring their trash to it as well because it was a convenient spot,” he says. “It was just a big hole in the ground and gravity tends to help dumpers but it works against people cleaning it up.”

As a result, no one knows what to expect when facing a sinkhole. Volunteer and former chair of the cleanup, Jeff Sturniolo, once made a statement often repeated by the group: “Sinkholes are like icebergs. Ninety percent of the trash is under the surface.”

Anatomy of Sinkhole

Sinkholes form when slightly acidic water reacts with carbonate rock, such as limestone or dolomite eating away the bedrock until the surface finally collapses.

The result throws off nature’s natural filtration system. Normally, rainwater lands on the surface and seeps through layers of rock such as sandstone or limestone, which acts as a natural filter. A sinkhole, however, creates a path straight from the surface and into the groundwater.

“It’s essentially a direct conduit,” Finton says.

State and federal laws prohibit dumping waste into sinkholes, although illegal dumping continues to occur.

The ClearWater Conservancy, and other organizations are working to discourage illegal dumping.

“These are historic dumpsite where the damage has already happened,” Finton says. “What we’re doing is something positive. We’re trying to improve it.”

North Georgia writer Noble Sprayberry is a frequent contributor to Out Here.