ERWIN — Since a large sinkhole was discovered on the grounds of Love Chapel Elementary School nearly six months ago, the grounds have been the subject of testing as parents and students have awaited word on the fate of the approximately 60-year-old school.
Any speculation of Love Chapel’s future was put to rest Thursday, as the Unicoi County Board of Education unanimously voted to close the school after receiving the results of the latest testing.
“Due to the additional testing that we had done showing additional activities and weathering, the property is not safe for our students,” Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown said following Thursday’s meeting of the board. “I said from the very beginning if we find that this property is not safe, we will not go back into it, so we cannot send students back into an unsafe environment.”
The sinkhole at Love Chapel was discovered on Saturday, Aug. 18 by someone walking the area. Crews arrived that day and dumped around 100 tons of rock in the sinkhole, which grew to around 25 feet in diameter and is located only feet from the school’s playground and the school itself, in order to stabilize it before measurements were taken. These measurements indicated that the hole was around 120 feet deep, with the last 25 feet being water.
Classes at the school were canceled for the week of Aug. 20 after the school system’s insurance provider advised that no one should be allowed in the building. A relocation plan for Love Chapel’s students was developed and implemented on Aug. 27. This plan saw Love Chapel students in kindergarten through second grade relocated to Unicoi County Intermediate School and third-grade students relocated to Unicoi County Middle School. This relocation plan is still in effect.
Also in late August, crews from HSA Engineers & Scientists sent by the school system’s insurance provider conducted drilling around the sinkhole to collect soil and other samples for testing. The subsequent report by engineers offered remediation recommendations.
But In December, the Unicoi County Board of Education approved a proposal to hire HSA Engineers & Scientists complete further testing on the entire Love Chapel grounds before deciding if remediation was the best course of action. The firm conducted seismic testing in December and conducted borings of 16 areas on the approximately 6-acre property. The results of this testing were discussed Thursday.
Brown covered the results of the 20-page report with the board and those in attendance Thursday. Through its soil borings, HSA found that four areas on the Love Chapel property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two areas were “weathered,” meaning these areas were in the process of developing sinkhole activity, Brown said.
“The results of the geophysical survey for the existing school site indicated a few localized areas of anomalously low velocity materials at depth,” the HSA report states. “Although absent across much of the study area, a moderate concentration of these anomalous features occurs near the more eastern section of the property. Furthermore, active sinkhole activity conditions were identified in borings in the northeast part of the property and along east-west trending lineaments spanning the north-central and southern portions of the property.
“Based on the results of our geotechnical evaluation and knowledge of local geology, the risk of sinkhole development within select areas of the project site, in our opinion, is considered moderate to high.”
It was also determined through the testing that the sinkhole that opened in the grounds in August is a “cover-collapse” type of sinkhole. The report states these types may develop abruptly, possibly over a period of hours, and cause “catastrophic damages.” These types of sinkholes occur where covering sediments contain a significant amount of clay, according to the report.
As part of its approval to close Love Chapel Elementary School, the board also authorized Brown to begin working with the school system’s insurance provider and begin work on a relocation plan for Love Chapel students. Brown said she begin working with the insurance company today, adding that school officials already had some ideas in mind for a long-term relocation plan.
“We’re already looking at areas, but we have not determined anything,” she said. “Once I do that, I’ll bring it to the board for approval. My hope is that we’ll have something that is more stable for our K-3 Love Chapel students. Again, our intermediate and middle school have done an excellent job in making it work for now, but we’re completely out of space. Something will be in place by the time school starts in August of 2013.”
A meeting for Love Chapel students and parents will be held Monday beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Unicoi County High School at which Brown will again discuss the engineers’ report and its findings. Brown said she also met with Love Chapel faculty Thursday afternoon.
“Of course, they have mixed feelings,” she said. “They know we’re doing the right thing but, also, that’s their home.”
Board Chair Renea Jones-Rogers said the decision to close the school was not an easy one to make.
“I know it’s a difficult decision for the community to hear, and a difficult one for the teachers and the students of that school,” she said. “But all I can say is, rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure that they have a relocation in place very soon.”