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Why sinkholes are common in East Tennessee

University of Tennessee Hydrogeology Professor Larry McKay said a sinkhole is no surprise because East Tennessee contains thousands of sinkholes.
Sinkhole along Highway 11E in Jefferson City. Photo courtesy TDOT
Sinkhole along Highway 11E in Jefferson City. Photo courtesy TDOT(WVLT)
Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 8:01 PM EDT
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JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (WVLT) - If you drive down Highway 11E through Jefferson City, all lanes should be reopen after repairs and inspections of areas where sinkholes caved in parts of the road last week, according to TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi.

Nagi explained that crews are, “now performing geotechnical investigation via drilling to see if that will fix the issue long-term or if additional long-term repair is necessary.” TDOT crews performed repairs on two different sinkholes along that stretch of road, one near Mossy Creek Drive.

University of Tennessee Hydrogeology Professor Larry McKay said a sinkhole is no surprise because East Tennessee contains thousands of sinkholes. “Sinkholes are a common feature in East Tennessee. It’s a fundamental part of the geology. Dissolving of the rock, by moving water. And this can happen in certain rock types, particularly carbonate rocks like limestone and dolomite.”

Jefferson County Historian Bob Jarnagin also said he is not surprised by the latest round of area sinkholes. “We’ve had sinkholes in this area for decades, for a long, long time.”

Jarnagin said part of the lore of the area involves Mossy Creek Spring and the possibility of underground waterways, as well as a long history of mining. “We have a lot of limestone caverns in the area, we have a lot of underground water systems in the area, And there’s been zinc mining, before that there was lead mining, before that there were the iron works plants that were drawn to this area.”

McKay said while the flow of water underground affects the possibility of sinkholes and any development can involve changing that flow of water, mining is not necessarily a cause. “Not particularly, East Tennessee is so highly subject to sinkhole development anyways. You would literally have to be right beside the mine for it to have much impact on the flow.”

Jarnagin said in the Jefferson City community, which was originally named for Mossy Creek, that waterway has long been very important to the settling and development of the area. Studying the history points to the likelihood of much more water beneath the surface than folks see along Mossy Creek today.

“I’ve seen an early, early map of Mossy Creek of Jefferson County that shows Mossy Creek all the way up into Hamblen County above ground in to Panther Springs. That area coming through Talbott today during heavy rains becomes small lakes and ponds and the sinkholes fill up with water,” said Jarnagin.

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