The one-foot diameter hole can be seen here in the foreground. Love Chapel is in the background. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN - As crews continue work to ready the site adjacent to Unicoi County High School to temporarily serve as Love Chapel Elementary School, a reminder of why the work was necessary has presented itself.
Another hole was recently discovered on the grounds of the now-closed Love Chapel Elementary School. The hole was discovered earlier this week by Unicoi County Sheriff's Department Lt. Jimmy Erwin. Erwin said the hole is around 1 foot in diameter and was found about 180 feet from the approximately 60-year-old school building.
Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown was contacted after Erwin's discovery, and she subsequently contacted Johnson City-based engineering firm Foundation Systems to come out and give its assessment of the newly discovered opening. Officials also attempted to measure the depth of the hole, first by placing a 5-foot stake inside. This stake did not touch the bottom so a 20-foot pipe was placed into the hole. Brown said late Wednesday morning that the pipe went down about 16 feet, and that the last 8 feet of the hole was water.
In December, the Unicoi County Board of Education approved a proposal to hire Florida-based HSA Engineers & Scientists after a sinkhole was discovered on Love Chapel Elementary School property on Aug. 18, 2012. After the firm was hired, HSA conducted seismic testing and borings of 16 areas on the approximately 6-acre school property. In a subsequent report, HSA indicated that four areas of the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two others were in the process of developing sinkhole activity.
Brown said the hole discovered earlier this week was found in the vicinity of one of the areas HSA noted in its report as showing signs of sinkhole activity. However, she said Foundation Systems representatives advised that the hole could have been caused by previously test drilling that has "dropped out." She also said the new opening may measure greater than 16 feet, as engineers with Foundation Systems said a rock could be lodged in the hole at that depth.
"There's just so much unknown you don't down, so we're taking every safety precaution we can," Brown said.
Even though barricades had already been placed around Love Chapel Elementary, Brown said Wednesday morning that school officials would place orange silt fencing around the new hole. She said it would also be filled with rock and dirt.
"At this point, we're going what the engineer tells us to do," Brown said. "We're going to put the silt fencing in for safety and fill it up."
Erwin said the hole has not grown in size since it was discovered several days ago, unlike the sinkhole that was found on the school's grounds last August. That sinkhole quickly grew to measure around 25 feet in diameter and around 120 feet deep, with the last 25 feet being water. This sinkhole hole opened only months after a large sinkhole opened under a swimming pool at a residence on Bradshaw Woods Road, located directly behind Love Chapel Elementary School.
"This has stayed stable, so that's a good thing," Brown said. "The thing is your water table's up so much. If you recall before the other two opened up, we had lots of rain then we had a drought period. When your water table drops sometimes and you've got that fine soil, that's when you'll get a sudden collapse."
By Wednesday afternoon, the silt fencing had been placed around the new hole, and it had been filled. Brown said officials have been closely monitoring the opening since it was discovered and will continue to do so.
"We'll keep a very close eye on it," Brown said.
After the discovery of the sinkhole on Love Chapel's grounds last August, a plan that saw the school's students relocated to available space at Unicoi County Intermediate School and Unicoi County Middle School was implemented. In February, after receiving the HSA report indicating sinkhole activity on the property, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to permanently close Love Chapel Elementary School.
In March, the board approved a relocation plan for Love Chapel students in which a dozen modular units would be leased for three years and placed on property near Unicoi County High School and the Intermediate School. In April, the board approved the bids for the modular units and the site work needed for their installation. Earlier this month, the board voted to accept a $3 million settlement for the Love Chapel school building from Travelers Insurance, underwriter for Tennessee Risk Management Trust, the school's system's insurance provider.
Brown said Wednesday that the discovery of the latest hole near Love Chapel Elementary School reaffirms the board's February decision to close the school, which she said was all about the safety of the students.
"I hate that this has opened up, and I hope that we don't have anything else but, again, I don't think parents or anybody questioned why we didn't go back in the building," Brown said. "...I think this is another good reminder for everybody that you've got to be cautious and it was the right decision."