As Caroline County’s building official, Kevin Wightman spends the better part of his workdays traveling rural roads.
He loves the scenery: acres of open fields planted with corn in spring, soybeans in summer, wheat in winter. He’s come to know crossroads like Alps and Gether, Bagby and Passing, and waves at everyone as he cruises by in his white county truck with the Caroline seal on the side.
“I’ve traveled the world and the seven seas,” said Wightman, who spent 21 years in the Marine Corps and retired a captain. “I have found no place better than Caroline County. I’m going to die right here.”
Because of his love of a rural lifestyle, Wightman worries what will happen if the county becomes “ground zero” for fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. More than half of the 84,000 acres leased for possible natural gas and oil drilling in what’s known as the Taylorsville basin are in southern Caroline.
“I’m in the middle of fracking country,” he said.
ROADS ALREADY ‘GATORED’
Wightman has researched fracking enough to know that drilling brings a lot of infrastructure with it. Estimates vary from 400 to 1,400 truck trips needed to haul rigs, equipment and chemicals to each well. One drill site can have multiple wells on it, and trucks haul sand and chemicals to the site–and contaminated fracking water away from it–as long as the wells are in production.
“I run all these roads, and they’re already gatored,” he said, adding they’re cracked and bumpy like the back of an alligator–and in the same condition as most rural roads in the region. “We already have that, and the trucks aren’t even here yet. If they destroy all the roads, how are we gonna fix ’em?”
Wightman said he’s looking at fracking as a citizen, not a county official. But clearly his job–and his hobby of running–give him insight into road conditions that few others have.
Wightman also stresses that he hasn’t formed an opinion on fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals deep into the ground to release trapped gas.
“I’m not saying fracking’s bad, and I’m not saying fracking’s good,” he said. “There are a lot of questions we need to answer.”
‘WHOLE HOG IN FAVOR’
Land has been leased for possible drilling in Caroline, Essex, King George, King and Queen and Westmoreland counties. At a Sept. 18 town hall meeting in Dahlgren, residents asked what would happen if one county allows drilling and others don’t.
“Caroline County has gone whole hog in favor of fracking,” said Colonial Beach resident Diana Clopton.
Supervisor Ruby Brabo, who hosted the meeting, concurred. She’s been asked by officials throughout the Northern Neck–as well as the Virginia Association of Counties–to present her research on the possible impacts of fracking.
“Caroline seems to be in favor,” she told the group. “They really haven’t joined in any of the forums.”
Brabo also said the majority of residents who have supported fracking, either in public meetings or letters in newspapers, are Caroline residents.
“All of that just adds to the perception that Caroline is anxious to move forward with fracking and does not seem concerned with understanding the impacts,” Brabo said in a recent email.
Not so, said Floyd Thomas, chairman of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors. He said county staff have attended most fracking meetings.
“Although we have not publicized it much, Caroline has been looking at the entire issue of fracking for quite some time,” Thomas wrote in an email.
He said that much needs to be learned, “and we’ll need to get answers when applications are actually made.”
No one has filed a permit to drill anywhere in the basin, which is south and east of Fredericksburg.
Caroline Supervisor Jeff Sili, whose district includes leased lands, had a different take on the county’s level of activity. He said fracking had been discussed “all of five minutes at the board level,” and that he believes it’s inappropriate “to comment on an issue that’s not even on the table yet.”
He said he has heard from residents on both sides, “but even they don’t see this as an imminent issue.”
Sili said Caroline residents are far more concerned about ongoing applications for sand and gravel mines along the Rappahannock River.
‘WHO DO I ASK?’
During his time in the Marines, Wightman did carpentry work on the side. When stationed at Quantico Marine Corps base and living in Stafford County, he framed houses in rural Caroline and liked what he saw.
As soon as his youngest child graduated from high school, he and his wife, Lisa Ann, lived in a camper until they moved into their dream home in 2002.
Their two-story house sits on 12 acres, has wraparound porches and overlooks a pond off Dodge City Road in far-eastern Caroline, a quarter-mile from Essex County.
Wightman, who speaks his mind without hesitation, is the father of three, grandfather of three and has been the proud parent of many adopted dogs, including a Great Dane the size of a pony and a three-legged pit bull. He’s 55, and if the Marine Corps birthday falls on a workday, he shaves his white beard and wears his dress blues to the office.
As he started hearing about fracking, he was curious to see where land had been leased. He got a map that shows every piece of property from Frog Level to Bowling Green and along both sides of U.S. 301.
Wightman highlighted acres leased for drilling and showed a Free Lance-Star reporter and photographer roads that serve the areas.
Some are barely wide enough for his truck. Others have weeds sprouting through the pavement, no shoulders to speak of and consist of an asphalt quilt of patches.
Wightman stopped at one spot on Bagby Road. The pavement was chipping away in a pothole, and Wightman could loosen other pieces of pavement with his foot.
On Dodge City Road, he pointed out a bridge with a 15-ton weight limit. What happens when trucks carrying 30 tons to 50 tons of drill rigs and equipment need to cross?
“I just want to ask all these questions before we decide to frack,” he said. “But who do I ask? Where is the source of information?”
‘GOOD FOR THE TEAM’
Wightman also expressed concerns about stormwater management and land disturbance. The county has one officer to oversee erosion and sediment control.
Wightman wondered who would inspect sites where dirt has been disturbed for wells? Or if water is contaminated? Most homes in rural Caroline are served by wells, Wightman said; what happens if that water is ruined?
The state says companies have to put up a $25,000 bond per site.
Road costs vary based on many factors, but it takes about $448,000 to pave 1 mile of rural roadway, said Kelly Hannon, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Wightman wants his neighbors to know that he respects the freedoms allowed in the Constitution, provided no one else–or his or her land–is hurt in the process.
“I’m a property rights guy,” he said. “I don’t need the federal, state or local guys telling me I gotta cut my trees or do whatever. But when you do something that affects more than you, then consideration has to be taken for what’s good for the team.”