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By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

With 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?

“I’m not worried,” said Doug Anderton during a brief sitdown last week with the Dade County Sentinel.

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.

Moreover, 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.

Anderton 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 Valley Head.

“It’s just 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 said.

The public 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.

Fracking 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 seeps.”

Natural fossil 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. 

And OGB’s 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 owners.”

But McQuillan 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.

The way 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 have.”

McQuillan said 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 shale could.

But McQuillan 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. 

Readers may monitor drilling permit application activity for themselves at OGB’s website, www.gsa.state.al.us.

McQuillan said 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.

The Sentinel 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.

The Sentinel 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 Langley.

“Oddly enough, there are a bunch of people asking that question, but it’s not an issue for us at this point,” he said

Visitor Comments
 
Submitted By: Mark Kolinski Submitted: 2/23/2013
Same old lame responses from someone on the AL Oil and Gas Board when concerns about fracking are raised. As if the existence of naturally occurring gas seeps rules out ones caused by drilling and fracking. And the "shale is so deep," as if you can magically tap into it without drilling through the karst topography and aquifers above it. And as if the only threat is the chemicals in fracking fluids, totally ignoring the naturally occurring contaminants in the produced water, including radioactivity, which create a serious disposal problem. What's with these bureaucrats? Do they think we're all stupid? Beware those who try and pass off shale gas extraction as if it is some benign process.




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