By Jeanne Bell
The final Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled for release mid-summer 2021 for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (a part of the Center for Disease Control) project to replace the abandoned Lake Lynn Experimental Mine with a new underground facility to be built in Mace WV on a 461-acre property located on the border of Randolph and Pocahontas County. The experimental mine is designed to be built in limestone but to replicate tunnels and galleries in a working coal mine.
The property is located at the source of the headwaters of both the Tygart Valley River and the Elk River. The site is adjacent to Snowshoe Mountain Resort and the Monongahela National Forest. The geology is Karst, and the adjacent community of primary and second homes relies on groundwater wells and springs. No public water is available for these homes.
The Tygart Valley River and the Elk River are both trout reproductive waters in this region. The Tygart Valley River forms on the adjacent property upstream from the proposed site, sinks underground and rises again, then flows across the property the CDC proposes to develop. Native brook trout reproduce in these waters.
Tributaries in the Headwaters of the Elk rise and sink and are well known for subterranean flow through a series of caves and underground streams that join the Elk River, which itself sinks and flows underground along Dry Branch Road, until it rises again at Elk Springs. The Elk is known for trout waters and is a popular fishing destination.
In 1976 the Northern Pocahontas County West Virginia Speleological Survey Bulletin published results for a dye trace test conducted in this part of the Elk River Watershed. The dye was introduced at a point called Beale’s Insurgence only 1.65 miles from the proposed underground facility. The dye traveled South to the Big Springs fork of the Elk in Slatyfork in Pocahontas County, and Northwest approximately 10 miles to the reemergence of the Elk River at Elk Springs, in Randolph County. Dye was also introduced in Simmons Mingo Cave where the Dry Fork and Douglas Fork of the Elk River join Simmons Mingo stream and flow underground to My Cave and join the Elk River where it sinks as a waterfall in the Black Hole. Simmons Mingo cave is in the Tygart Valley River Watershed. The dye trace study confirmed an underground connection of the Elk and Tygart watersheds. This is the only known subterranean connection of two major river watersheds in West Virginia.
The proposed project would tunnel 500 feet down through the Greenbrier limestone formation and would install a 164000 GSF (Gross Square foot) subterranean facility under the border between Randolph and Pocahontas County. Although the entire facility would be within the Tygart Valley River Watershed, it would only be about 1300 feet from the Elk River Watershed Boundary near the entrance to Dry Branch road in Mace. As demonstrated by the Simmons Mingo connection, watersheds are surface demarcations, and do not necessarily correspond with the underground flow of water in Karst.
The facility poses multiple risks for groundwater contamination.
Underground fire control is a major area of research in the experimental mine. The project includes an above ground fire suppression experimental facility, located on Karst. Fire foam and other fire-retardant chemical research would not be limited to the above ground facility. Fire foam was tested underground as part of the research conducted at Lake Lynn. Fire foam is well documented to contaminate water in localities surrounding fire fighting training and testing facilities, as it did in Martinsburg WV, where the city water supply was contaminated with PFA’s. PFA’s are known as a “forever chemical”. They do not degrade in the environment, nor do they break down in the body.
Potential groundwater contaminants include nitrates from blasting and all the chemicals associated with diesel and oil, products of combustion of coal dust, PFA’s and other chemicals from fire foam, and any unknown chemicals used in the underground experiments.
The facility would be dewatered by continuous pumping during construction and during operation. Water entering the facility would be pumped to the surface where it would pass through an oil/water separator, enter a series of two or three lined settling ponds, where it would be “cleaned” of contaminants, and discharged to the surface. The discharged water would flow through the Karst into the groundwater.
Continuous pumping of groundwater risks altering the groundwater flow, potentially dewatering wells and springs, and risks change in water quality due to recharge source change.
Construction will disrupt commuting and tourism travel for four years.
State Route 219 travels N/S through Randolph and Pocahontas Counties and is a major route taken by guests travelling to Snowshoe and Pocahontas County from points North and East, including DC and Northern VA. This traffic will increase when Corridor H is finished.
The entrance to the facility would be located on Route 219, on the north side of Valley Mountain in Randolph County, where the road winds its way up and down the mountain at a 7% grade. Construction is estimated to take four years, and this section of road would be occluded by heavy truck traffic, especially at the beginning of the job. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement states that 116 truckloads of excavated material would leave the site each day for 4 months. This equates to 232 trucks entering and leaving the site daily. For the remaining 3.75 years of construction, an estimated 16 trucks per day (32 trips) would haul excavated limestone to a local quarry. These statistics account for excavation debris removal, and do not include heavy equipment deliveries or materials deliveries. No estimate was provided for these additional trucks entering and leaving the site.
Lake Lynn, the site of the former Experimental Mine located in Pennsylvania just across the West Virginia border, was built in an abandoned limestone mine, surrounded by unoccupied land owned by a timber company, with only one house nearby, more than a half mile away.
The proposed site is within the source of the headwaters of two rivers, adjacent to a community dependent on groundwater in Karst, adjacent to an internationally recognized four season resort, with entry located on a steep section of busy mountain road.
A group of community residents organized with Eight Rivers Council, Snowshoe Mountain Resort and their parent company Alterra, and the Pocahontas County Commission have all contacted elected representatives including our Senators, our Governor, and our house delegates to express objection to this proposed project and seeking to move the proposed location for this Experimental Mine. While all acknowledge the importance of Mine Safety research, this location is a poor fit for an experimental mine. A more remote location in an area already impacted by mining must exist somewhere in West Virginia.
Senator Manchin indicated in a meeting with Snowshoe that he wants the facility located in West Virginia and he needs to hear from more residents regarding the current proposed site.
To learn more about the Elk Headwaters Watershed, search Elk Headwaters Comprehensive Watershed Protection Plan published 2011, on the WV DEP website.
To learn about fire foam and other experiments conducted at the former Lake Lynn facility, visit https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/UserFiles/works/pdfs/rmfst.pdf,
To read the DEIS published in the Federal Register go to: Docket No. CDC-2018-0057 Draft Environmental Impact Statement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with U.S. General Services Administration Acquisition of Site for Development of an Underground Safety Research Program Facility for National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health in Mace, West Virginia
Jeanne Bell has lived at the headwaters of the Elk and Tygart Valley Rivers since 1987. She and her husband, George, are business owners at Snowshoe. George was President of the Elk Headwaters Watershed Association, which produced the Comprehensive Watershed Protection Plan. Their daughter, Ellie, is a board member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.