BIG STONE GAP — Pointing to a spot about halfway down a steep, deep natural depression in the earth, Joe Branham said what looked like an earthy ledge was anything but.
“You can’t tell it from up here with the dirt and all on it, but that’s a car right there,” Branham said. “In fact, we’ve found what’s left of at least three cars down in there.”
The consensus for the one hidden hulk was a ’54 Chevy, practically buried in a karst sinkhole on a Wise County farm along with all sorts of other junk tossed in over the decades.
A karst sinkhole refers to the collapse of a portion of limestone caverns under the surface of the earth, basically a big natural drain. Karst sinkholes are common across the region and, sadly, some have been used as handy dump sites.
Groundwater pollution just wasn’t a big concern once upon a time. It is these days, which is why Wise County Litter Control Officer Greg Cross tackled the job of cleaning out the sinkhole located in the Powell Valley.
“The problem with karst sinkholes like this, all the water in this valley we’re in flows down here. That sinkhole we’re looking down into drains into the water table for Big Stone Gap, and that’s a concern,” Cross said.
With a work detail made up of inmates from the regional jail in Duffield, a smattering of county parolees working off fines, and a helping hand from litter control officers in Dickenson, Buchanan and Russell counties and the Lonesome Pine Soil & Water Conservation District, Cross & Co. were getting a good start early Friday cleaning up the site.
Before 10 a.m., the crew had already dredged up a growing pile of old automobile fuel tanks and a stack of 50-gallon drums.
“Bunches of tires. Car seats. Plastics. Stoves. Bedsprings. Yep. Even kitchen drains. Whole cars. Parts of cars. Why, I reckon there’s just a bit of everything down in there,” said Fred Mooney of Dickenson County. “I bet it went in a lot easier than it’s coming out, too.”
Several months ago, a judge assigned Gary Carico of Wise to work off some fines in the employ of Cross. He worked off his fines weeks ago but liked the task so much, he won’t leave.
“If I had an opening, I’d hire Gary in a heartbeat,” Cross said.
“Why, helping clean up places like this keeps me out of trouble. Now I just stay with ’em and lend a hand cleaning up the county,” Carico said.
“I like the crew. I like the people, and we’re out here making a difference. Used to be, I was the type to throw a beer bottle or whatever out the window and think nothing of it. These days it makes me mad to see other people do it. I used to not care, but now I believe in it. If this is some good I can do for my people and my county, why, I’m glad of it.”
Dickenson County Litter Control Officer Lester Turner said neighbors help neighbors clean up their neighborhoods, which is why he and officers from other counties were on hand at the Powell Valley site on Friday.
“Greg comes and helps us when we need it, and we come down and help him clean up some. It’s only fair,” Turner said.
Cross said regional cooperation just makes sense.
“By ourselves, we’ve got limited resources. Together, we can get a lot done and make a difference,” Cross said. “And I’m real happy about local businesses giving us their support. Hard Rock Contractors (in Wise) let us have the backhoe for this job. Pizza King (in Big Stone Gap) and Pepsi Cola (in Norton) are feeding the crew. And the Wise County Sheriff’s Department loaned us their four-wheel drive mule. It just makes us feel good to get support like that.”
Cross wasn’t sure if the Powell Valley sinkhole could get cleared out in a day, but said that was the goal.
“I don’t know how far down this thing goes,” he said, “but we’ll work down until there’s nothing left to haul out.”