By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
controversy igniting about whether hydraulic fracturing, a new technology for
drilling into shale to extract fossil fuel, should be allowed in Tennessee’s
Cumberland Forest, this business of “fracking” is becoming a hot topic for
Dade’s neighbors to the north.
But some Rising
Fawn residents are more worried about Dade’s neighbors to the south: Could
fracking in Alabama pollute well water this side of the border, they ask, or
even taint Dade’s public water supply?
worried,” said Doug Anderton during a brief sitdown last week with the Dade
And if anyone
in the county should worry about threats to water quality, that would be
Anderton: As manager of the Dade County Water Authority, he is the man the
county holds responsible for what comes out of Dade faucets.
Anderton, who celebrated his 40th anniversary with the Authority last year,
this Fall was given a prestigious vote of confidence by his water-world peers
across the country when they elected him president of the National Rural Water
Association. Anderton showed the Sentinel his smiling face on the cover of
Water Stewards, NRWA’s magazine.
So Anderton has
some cred tied up in water purity, but he is confident so far that nothing that
might or might not be happening in Alabama is much of a threat to that. “We
perform routine source water tests and we would know immediately if we had
something foreign that had gotten in the water,” he said.
explained, as he has before, that the headwaters of Lookout Creek, Dade’s
drinking water source, arise across the Alabama border in DeKalb County’s
right in the little township there,” said Anderton. “It’s kind of a divide. The
water comes out from under the mountain and it runs south to Fort Payne and
north to the Tennessee River.”
In that area,
the valley is one mile wide from Lookout Mountain to Sand Mountain, said
Anderton, and Lookout Creek is the lowest part of elevation. “So anything that
happened in that mile between those two mountains would go to the creek,” he
health danger attributed to fracking is that the poisonous chemicals injected
into the shale in the extraction process can make their way into the water
table. But Anderton says that’s not likely here.
“As far as
water is concerned, the shale that would contain the oil is a long way below
water tables,” he said.
The only way
Anderton could foresee the fracking chemicals making their way back up to the
water table is through abandoned oil or gas wells drilled long ago and left
open. For decades, he said, the law has required such wells to be sealed with
concrete. “But through the years there’s probably been wildcatters that didn’t
do that,” he conceded.
If such a well
had been drilled in this area, and if it had been left unsealed, it is
imaginable that it could provide a conduit for fracking chemicals to force
their way into the aquifer, said Anderton.
But he is not
losing sleep over it. Anderton says he’s read about the fracking controversy in
Chattanooga and is pretty sure nothing will happen on that front before the
furor is laid to rest. “I think until those questions are all answered to
everybody’s satisfaction, there won’t be any drilling. There won’t be any
fracking,” he said.
On the broader
issue of fracking in general, Anderton said the NRWA has taken no position of
it as yet, but personally he’s sat in on discussions among the experts and as
far as he’s concerned the jury’s still out.
“It’s kind of like global warming,” he said. “You’ve got two sides.”
On the plus
side, he said, fracking proponents say the process is environmentally safe and
that using it to extract domestic fossil fuel deposits could make the U.S.
energy-independent by 2030. Georgia, he said, is one of the states that contain
substantial shale reserves.
opponents, meanwhile, point to horrific photographs of homeowners setting fire
to the water that comes out of their kitchen faucets.
But one Alabama
official was unimpressed by such photographs. “You don’t have to have fracking for
that to happen,” said geologist Kirk McQuillan. “You get that with natural
fuel seeps, said McQuillan, occur in the ocean quite often but sometimes on
land as well. “That’s how we in the early days discovered oil and gas,” he said.
McQuillan is a
geologist with the Alabama Oil and Gas Board.
In Alabama, it is the OGB, not the state environmental protection agency
– called the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) – that
regulates the drilling industry.
mission, going by the statement on its website, seems as much about the
industry as the environment: “Promoting the conservation of oil and gas while
ensuring the protection of both the environment and the correlative rights of
says that doesn’t mean OGB doesn’t care about the earth. “We’re
environmentalists. We just try to go at it in a scientific and responsible
way,” he said.
McQuillan sees it, this controversial new extraction method fits the
“scientific and responsible” bill. “Fracking has been found to be very useful,”
he said. “Without fracking, we wouldn’t have a lot of the oil and gas that we
he’s seen fracking used many times and never noticed one real problem. But he
acknowledged that OGB is not deaf to the opposition. “We see the hysteria that
is coming that is clearly unwarranted,” he said. “We’re working on qualifying
some of our regulations and requirements regarding fracking.”
He said in this
cave-dotted area, dumping trash – specifically old tires – into sinkholes does
much more toward polluting the drinking water supply than drilling into the
obligingly looked up the number of oil and gas wells in DeKalb County for the
Sentinel and found currently existing: None. Nor has anyone filed for a permit
to drill one.
monitor drilling permit application activity for themselves at OGB’s website,
it was possible for rogue drillers to start operations without a permit, but that
when that happens area residents are generally quick to call and let his agency
know. The number at OGB is (205) 247-3641.
did check real estate records across the border and noted that 1,155 acres in
the Battelle area had been acquired late last year by Battelle Glover
Investments, incorporated in December 2011 under an Atlanta address; but the
significance, if any, of this activity remains to be seen.
also contacted the Georgia Environmental Protection Division about fracking.
There Burt Langley, manager of the EPD’s Mountain Division, had a similar
not-to-worry message: Though he believes an experimental well or two may have
been dropped, Georgia currently has no oil or gas production at all, said
“Oddly enough, there
are a bunch of people asking that question, but it’s not an issue for us at
this point,” he said