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Geologists Shed Some Light on Underground Hazards

Sat January 29, 2005 - Midwest Edition
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LEXINGTON, KY (AP) Geologists at the University of Kentucky have developed one-of-a-kind maps that will enable homeowners, developers and engineers to pinpoint underground trouble areas before construction.

Over the past three years, the Kentucky Geological Survey (KGS) has worked on the color-coded maps for every county in the state –– an initiative that’s a first nationally.

The maps show types of soils, fault lines, elevation changes and sinkholes.

Dan Carey, KGS hydrologist and the project’s chief manager, hopes the maps prevent people from building on ground that has hazards underneath.

“There’s probably quite a lot of money lost because people go ahead and do things, and then they learn later that because of the rocks, it doesn’t turn out right,” Carey said.

A map of Fayette County is the first of 28 completed so far. Another 20 are being created and 72 more are planned, Carey said.

The maps cater to the general public as opposed to scientists and engineers, Carey said.

In Fayette County alone, such maps would’ve headed off problems with several developments, said Jim Rebmann, senior environmental planner with the Urban County Government’s Division of Planning.

• On Lauderdale Drive in south Lexington, the back yards of four recently built homes are moving downhill because of mudslides. The dirt placed on top of the hill to hold the homes is too heavy for the stone underneath, Rebmann said.

• A sinkhole found at a construction site in west Lexington last fall was first thought to be 22 ft. deep, but was later found to be a crater 65 ft. wide and 35 ft. deep.

• After buying 100 acres near McConnell Springs in the early 1990s, a developer found 19 acres full of sinkholes, Rebmann said. Since the land couldn’t be built on, the developer had to charge home buyers more for the remaining acres.

• During the mid-1970s in Meadowthorpe, a back yard caved in 30 ft. The home cost $62,000, but construction to repair the hole cost approximately $170,000, he said.

New development is adding to these problems, said Rebmann, who has been with the division more than 30 years.

“In Fayette County, we have developed most of our best land,” he said. “Land for future development is going to be much more problematic.”

His department already uses maps that show subsurface land issues, but the newer KGS maps are useful to developers, planners and homeowners, he said.

“When you are buying big tracts of land, you should look and see what’s there,” Rebmann said. “Environmental problems, when they occur, are so much more to fix after the fact.”

KGS’ project stands on the shoulders of a 1960s and ’70s project that mapped Kentucky’s subsurface, Carey said.

Originally made to aid the coal, limestone, oil and gas industries, these older maps were drawn to the largest scale of any geological survey nationally. As a result, they have more detail than most.

As opposed to county maps, other state geological maps are just “a wall poster” of the state, said Jim Cobb, director of KGS.

Carey’s project takes the data from the 1960s and ’70s project, digitizes it and separates it by county.

And though the information is approximately 30 years old, it is still useful, Carey said.

“The underlying rocks remain the same,” he said.

Despite being a low-budget effort, the project has been slowed by a lack of funding, Carey said.

Since the information has already been gathered, the only cost is salary for approximately 10 people working on the project, he said.

Each map takes approximately four weeks and $3,000 to $5,000 worth of workers’ time to create, he said.