Stop Sinkholes Before They Start

The first step to preventing a sinkhole due to leaking pipes is a strong sewer inspection program

This content is sponsored by Envirosight. Sponsored content is authorized by the client and does not necessarily reflect the views of COLE Publishing. View our privacy policy.
Stop Sinkholes Before They Start

Interested in Inspection?

Get Inspection articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Inspection + Get Alerts

Sinkholes can be both costly and deadly. The US Geological Survey estimates that sinkholes cause approximately $300 million in damage per year. Natural sinkholes form in karst terrain — areas with bedrock that can be dissolved by groundwater, typically salt beds, limestone or other carbonate rock. Florida, with its mostly limestone bedrock, is particularly susceptible to sinkholes. Natural sinkholes form when acidic water dissolves the bedrock, forming pathways and channels that are then filled with “overburden,” an upper layer of rock and soil. Manmade sinkholes can occur in any type of terrain and form when cracked or leaking pipes provide space for overburden to fall into a pipe and be carried away. 

There are three main types of sinkholes:

Dissolution: With a thin layer of overburden covering the bedrock, the water wears the rock away, leaving a depression that often fills with water, leaving a pool or marsh.

Cover-subsidence: Where there is a thicker layer of overburden covering the bedrock, the underlying bedrock wears away, carrying the overburden with it, leaving a depression. These occur most often when the overburden is mostly sand.

Cover collapse: The most abrupt and catastrophic type of sinkhole, this occurs when the overburden is mostly made of clay. Groundwater wears away the bedrock and pulls the overburden into the remaining space, leaving a void above it. Over time, the void grows upward until the roof finally collapses, creating a sudden and dramatic sinkhole. This type of sinkholes can also form as a result of cracked or leaking pipes where soil falls into the pipe and is washed away. As with natural sinkholes, the void grows upward until the roof collapses.

While most manmade sinkholes occur due to mining and irrigation, sinkholes — particularly the cover-collapse variety — are a large risk for wastewater utilities with leaking pipes. The first step to preventing a sinkhole due to leaking pipes is a strong sewer inspection program.

Consider the case of Macomb County, Michigan’s 15 Mile interceptor, which experienced its third collapse last year, creating a sinkhole which led to the evacuation of 23 homes on Christmas Eve. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, James Heath, a retiree from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) stated, “It’s a systemic problem with communities that fail to perform inspections like they should.”

According to the article, the pipeline was first installed in July 1972 as Macomb and Oakland counties were connected to Detroit’s wastewater treatment system. After the installation, the pipeline was left uninspected for seven years until it collapsed in 1979. Though DWSD had pledged to inspect the pipeline every two years, the pipeline collapsed again in 2004, two years after Heath retired, leaving a sinkhole behind. This collapse prompted the transfer of the sewer system to Oakland and Macomb counties in 2009. However, after an inspection near the location of the 2004 collapse in 2009, the interceptor was again left uninspected until the discovery of the most recent sinkhole in 2016.

Upon inspection after the first collapse and sinkhole in 1979, Jenny Engineering recommended inspecting the pipe every year until no changes were observed, and then no less frequently than every three years. Despite this recommendation, the history of sinkholes and the prevalence of sinkhole-prone ground, inspections fell by the wayside.  

And the potential for injury and cost of repair aren’t the only problems caused by sinkholes. A central Florida sinkhole caused contaminated wastewater to leak into a main source of drinking water for the state in September of last year. Sinkholes can have a ripple effect on watersheds and wastewater and stormwater systems around them. Regular, thorough inspection is vital to preventing catastrophic collapses. Sewer inspection equipment can assist in identifying and logging cracks, corrosion and sagging that may indicate a system failure and an impending sinkhole.

Limiting infiltration and exfiltration greatly decreases the risk of sinkholes. Quick-Lock, Envirosight's mechanical point repair sleeve is a quick, easy solution. Learn more here. 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.