Oil drilling changing face of Amite Co.
LIBERTY, Miss. (WTW) — Rhett Anderson of Baton Rouge, La., calls himself “an environmentalist but not quite a tree-hugger.”
He and his wife pick up trash along River Road south of Liberty, where they’re building a retirement home. He threatened to report a truck driver who tossed a milk carton beside the road. He stops his bulldozer if a toad-frog is in the path.
Anderson traces his Amite County ancestors back eight generations. His grandfather, Wiley Smith, was sheriff in the 1940s. He loves the land, the woods, the Amite River which borders his property.
Yet two new oil wells are on his property, and fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, should soon get under way. It is an oil recovery method that opponents say threatens the environment. Supporters say it could also bring tremendous economic benefits.
“It’s going to change the face of Amite County, the county we know and loved,” Anderson said.
While he can’t control other parts of the county, “my goal is to protect my property. I’m going to try to preserve my piece of paradise here.”
Anderson, 57, said his father leased mineral rights for years, never really expecting anything other than the upfront bonuses. Anderson did the same and said he was surprised when Encana Oil Gas (USA) Inc. contacted him last year with plans to drill two wells on his land.
He thought of the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”
Now one well has been dug and an oil rig towers over a second on a six-acre graveled pad just behind Lea Cemetery, where Anderson’s ancestors are buried.
As a boy, Anderson frequently traveled to his grandparents’ place on River Road and fell in love with the fragrant pines, the friendly folks, the green quiet of the creek-sized river.
“A lot of people don’t understand Amite County, but I do,” he said.
Anderson went on to own and operate Waskey Bridges Inc. for 34 years, building thousands of concrete platforms in the south Louisiana marsh. He recently sold the company and retired, though he still works as a consultant, and went to work building a retirement home on River Road.
He was already at work on the house when he got the call from Encana.
The company wanted to drill the first well beside his dad’s old corn crib, which astonished Anderson. His dad had always joked that if anyone ever found oil, it would be by the crib.
Encana moved the rustic wooden structure across the road intact, cleared off a 6-acre site and went to work, naming the well Anderson 17.
The drilling process temporarily transformed the tranquil wooded setting.
“They had a complete city set up out here,” Anderson said.
Encana workers built a limestone road to the site and drilled 12,500 feet deep and 7,400 feet laterally. The lateral line was perforated during the process.
“Each time you perf, that’s the equivalent of drilling a well,” Anderson said. “So if you perf 25 holes, that’s the same as 25 wells.”
This well could potentially produce 1,000 barrels of oil a day, he said.
When the drillers finished, they dismantled everything in four days and moved to another site — No. 18 just up the road.
“They drilled it (No. 17) and they got it ready to frack and they stopped because they want to frack both wells at the same time,” Anderson said, comparing the double-fracking process to splitting a log from both ends.
Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the formation, using tremendous pressure to fracture the shale and release the oil. The water will be piped from the Amite River, and the wastewater will be hauled off in tanker trucks to designated disposal sites, Anderson said.
Drilling is under way at Anderson 18. A gigantic turquoise-and-white rig perches over the hole, rumbling like a Mississippi River towboat. Three mobile homes and a dozen pickup trucks line the back of the site.
The mobile homes serve as quarters for Encana workers.
Other workers “are all staying in McComb in hotels, and some of them are having trouble getting rooms,” Anderson said, noting others are staying in St. Francisville, La., and Jackson, La.
“There’s no doubt there’s some economic benefit in McComb.
“This is typically such a poor county. It’s going to make some Jed Clampetts and Elly Mays out of some people,” he said, referring to characters from the old “Beverly Hillbillies” TV show.
Some people are already trying to take advantage of local residents by trying to buy their mineral rights instead of leasing them, Anderson said.
“They may think they’re leasing, but they’re really selling their mineral rights,” he said, urging landowners not to sign anything without consulting an attorney.
Anderson said even though the oil wells are on his property, they’re not “his” wells, since any royalties from the oil will benefit mineral rights holders throughout the unit.
“But I have to put up with all this,” he said of the commotion. “It is about money for a lot of people. It is going to help a lot of people. But gosh, I hope things return to some normalcy.”
Anderson said Encana is going beyond the call of duty in being sensitive to the environment.
“They went to all the water wells in the unit and sampled all the water,” he said. “If anything ever happens to the groundwater, they’ve got a base line to compare it to.
“It’s an inherently messy business, but if you look around you don’t see any oil anywhere. They said they don’t let a crane come on here if it’s leaking oil. In my book they get an A-plus for their environmental practices.”
One thing he’s not crazy about is the stone’s-throw proximity of well No. 18 to Lea Cemetery.
“If you’ve got to talk about the pluses and minuses, this is a minus,” he said.
He said the cemetery association is discussing planting a buffer of shrubbery among the pine trees between the cemetery and the oil well.
The cemetery was established in 1819. Among people buried there are Anderson’s eighth-generation ancestor James Lea, who died in 1823, and U.S. congressman and Mississippi Constitution author William Lattimore, who died in 1843.
Anderson loves the river and isn’t concerned about taking 41/2 million gallons out for fracking.
He said that was done on an Amite County Board of Education well and had no other effect than lowering the river half an inch for 10 days.
Anderson said logging can have worse effects.
“Encana has 290,000 acres leased,” he said. “I heard there’s going to be hundreds of wells in Amite County.”
He admits to having mixed emotions at the prospect.
“It’s going to help a lot of people,” he said, citing oil royalties and new roads and businesses.
All of that remains uncertain and depends on the results of his and other early wells in this fracking venture.
“Are they going to have wells all over the county?” Anderson said. “If these wells go through, probably so. If these wells fall through, they’ll pull out and go somewhere else.”
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