By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
The Dade County Sentinel ran an article in February about whether hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil, or so-called “fracking,” might happen in Dade. The short answer then, according to various experts the Sentinel consulted, seemed to be a resounding, “Not to worry.”
But shortly afterward, Kaye Kiker of Mentone called and she was worried indeed.
Ms. Kiker, who had read the Sentinel article online, took issue with a quote from Doug Anderton, manager of the Dade County Water Authority: “We perform routine source water tests and we would know immediately if we had something foreign that had gotten in the water.”
No, Anderton would not, said Ms. Kiker.
“Water authorities do test for feces and bacteria,” she said. “But only every three to five years do they do anything that comprehensive. The comprehensive chemicals that could be in your groundwater, it’s just not tested regularly enough to know whether there’s a problem.”
Ms. Kiker worried that this area could in fact be a fracking target because it lies atop the same Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia shale field that induced the federal Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Association to announce last year they were opening 43,000 acres of the Talladega National Forest for oil and gas exploration. “The Little River Canyon has been targeted,” she said.
Since Ms. Kiker’s interview with the Sentinel on Feb. 28, several developments have arisen on the fracking front: A March 10 Associated Press article announced that wildcatters would indeed begin fracking in northwest Georgia, as close as Cave Spring and as early as May.
Across the border, the University of Tennessee gained approval for its plan to lease 8,636 acres of its Cumberland Forest for fracking.
And a recent New York Times article discussed the same concerns about radioactivity in fracking wastewater as Ms. Kiker brought up in her talk with the Sentinel.
In any case, now seems a good time to publish that interview, before any of Ms, Kiker’s other worries come true.
Ms. Kiker met with the Sentinel at Kamama, an art gallery in Mentone. She explained she worked in stained glass and had always wanted to live in an art community, so when she and her husband, Doug, retired from Sumter County, Ala., they picked Mentone.
In Sumter County, Ms. Kiker chaired the local water authority board of directors at a time the water supply was menaced by toxic waste, a gig that brought her both state and federal environmental honors. “On the flip side of that, I got death threats,” said Ms. Kiker. “I’ve been run off the road, character assassination – we were radical environmentalists and all this stuff.”
In Mentone, she had planned to give both sides of that coin a miss and concentrate on enjoying retirement. Then the fracking issue came along, and Ms. Kiker found that defending the public water supply was a hard habit to break.
“The value of water is immense,” she said. “It’s more valuable than gold. If you can’t get clean water to drink, you’re not going to live.”
Fracking, says Ms. Kiker, poses several threats to water supplies. But first, some background:
In 1983, Ms. Kiker was an unlikely “radical environmentalist.” She was a Baptist Sunday school teacher who sang in the church choir, and during the week she worked as office manager for a surgeon. But her curiosity got her reading about the new hazardous waste landfill – the largest in the nation – that Chemical Waste Management Inc. sited in Sumter County in 1978.
“I thought, why are they putting cyanide in the ground over our groundwater? This doesn’t make sense to me,” said Ms. Kiker. “Why is America allowing foreign countries to dump in our state?”
Because, she learned, Sumter was a poor county, and ripe for the kind of enterprise that nobody else wanted. “You can sell poor people anything,” she said. “You can say, this is jobs.”
But the landfill, used by 48 states as well as foreign countries for disposal of the most toxic materials in existence, didn’t end up bringing jobs to the county, she said. Rather, industries left in droves, not wishing their products to be associated with what came to be called “Chem Dump.”
Population dropped. Her own employer, the surgeon, left town. “He was concerned about the tumors and things he was finding,” said Ms. Kiker.
Meanwhile, Ms. Kiker had begun to fight what the landfill, which she says affects three major aquifers, was doing to the community’s water supply. The community noticed, and Ms. Kiker found herself appointed to fill a vacant seat on the local water board. Chem Dump lawyers opposed the appointment and tried to have it blocked by the state attorney, said Ms. Kiker, but she prevailed and eventually became chairperson.
As chair, she fought for the right of one low-income, predominantly black Sumter community not to be hooked onto Chem Dump-tainted water while its own well was under repair. That, she said, is how she wound up giving depositions for two years in a civil suit brought against the water board and her personally.
The suit was eventually dismissed, said Ms. Kiker, and in the end not only did Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt come down on her side, she also heard from Washington. “President Reagan called me to the White House for this,” she said. “We had lunch.”
Ms. Kiker and other activists managed to block construction of a hazardous waste incinerator planned for the same site, but the landfill itself will remain operational for 200 years, she said.
Still, she left Sumter County content with her medals and her partial successes, and things might have remained that way had not fracking raised her water-safety neck hairs.
“Horizontal fracking uses up to 300 tons of a mixture of 750 chemicals,” said Ms. Kiker. “Now, when they do testing for drinking water … it wouldn’t be the 750 chemicals. It would be the ones that the EPA requires.”
Fracking is a relatively new process, said Ms. Kiker, especially in the Southeast, and regulators are not current on details. Nobody is, she added, exhibiting an article about medical workers in Ohio lobbying lawmakers for information about which chemicals are used, so they know how to treat injuries they might cause. “They’re not available even to emergency personnel,” she said.
In fracking, water is mixed with sand and chemicals, then forced deep into the ground to fracture the shale and release natural gas or oil deposits. That water comes back up. “I would think they should recycle and reuse it again,” she said. “But they have to dispose of it somewhere. They usually go to a wastewater treatment plant.”
And as it stands, wastewater operations have no idea what’s in the water and how to treat it, said Ms. Kiker, so they tend to deal with it like sewage: Solids are removed and the liquid eventually finds its way into rivers and streams. That’s a terrible idea, she said, because not only does it contain those chemicals, it’s now tainted by the potentially carcinogenic radioactivity that occurs naturally deep in the ground.
It’s enough to make an old water board hand worry herself sick. Ms. Kiker lost a lot of hair during her Chem Dump days, she says, and fracking has her tearing at it again.
“They think it’s the solution to our oil and gas needs,” she said. “Instead of going to foreign lands, that America can provide its own.”
The country is way behind in developing solar and wind power, said Ms. Kiker. “We’re just not pursuing it because oil and gas have so much power over our representatives,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to fight these things in America.”
Closer to home, Ms. Kiker thinks water authorities like Dade’s and Valley Head’s should worry what fracking here would do to their water supplies, and she warns individual homeowners that fracking on a neighbor’s property may mean, at the least, the devaluation of their own.
“If you have a water well, you may lose it,” she said. “Once they fracture the bed underneath, your water just goes into the cracks.”