Pavement Subsidence in the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, USA: A Story of Groundwater Chemistry

Monday, 15 December 2014
Junfeng Zhu, James C Currens, Steven E Webb and Brad W Rister, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States
Cumberland Gap Tunnel was constructed in 1996 to improve highway travel between southeastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee and to restore Cumberland Gap to its historical appearance. About five years after construction, the concrete pavement in the tunnel began to exhibit noticeable signs of subsidence. Ground penetrating radar surveys detected voids in many areas of the limestone roadbed aggregate beneath the pavement. Field investigations conducted by the Kentucky Geological Survey and Kentucky Transportation Center from 2006 to 2008 discovered that groundwater was flowing from the bedrock invert into the aggregate along many parts of the tunnel. Average groundwater discharge from the tunnel was measured at approximately 1700 m3/d. We analyzed 265 groundwater samples collected from aggregate in different parts of the tunnel roadbed during low and high flow conditions. Calculated calcite saturation indices indicated that the groundwater was geochemically aggressive and capable of continuously dissolving calcite in the limestone aggregate although pH values of these water samples were near neutral. We also conducted an in-situ dissolution experiment by placing eight baskets filled with limestone aggregate beneath the roadbed in different locations in the tunnel for 178 days. At the end of the experiment, the limestone aggregate in contact with groundwater exhibited visual signs of dissolution and lost mass, and the highest mass loss recorded was 3.4 percent. Mass loss calculations based on kinetic models of calcite mineral and water samples taken near the baskets matched well with the actual measured mass losses, confirming that dissolution of calcite by the groundwater was the primary cause of the roadbed subsidence problem. Based on these findings, we suggested the limestone aggregate be replaced with noncarbonate (granite) aggregate to mitigate future road subsidence. The suggestion was adopted, and the repair was completed in early 2014.