By McKibben Jackinsky
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a seven-part series on the challenges faced by Alaskans with oil and gas development as neighbors.
Sunday, with temperatures below freezing, snow falling and a bitter wind blowing down Kachemak Bay, Homer resident Gee Denton was doing what friends have begged her to do: leaving the home that has been her “healing place, a retreat, a place to dream, a place of my heart.”
With the hillside on which Gee lives sliding out from under her, the unstoppable movement destroying her home, and the threat hanging over her head that at any moment the increasing erosion will gain momentum and send her, her home and tons of earth to the beach and bay below, what else could she do?
A damning blow to Gee’s dream of having a forever home was dealt in April 2014. The city of Homer was bringing to fruition a long-anticipated, multi-year project to deliver natural gas to the city.
Gee and her neighbors in tiny Baycrest Subdivision were notified a distribution line would be brought into their neighborhood sometime between June and late summer. The timing was good, coming after break-up, Alaska’s “fifth season,” when warming temperatures turn frozen ground into mud. Gee also understood notice would be given when the date was definite.
Eight years earlier the city had recognized the subdivision as being erosion-sensitive. Homer Electric Association was preparing to deliver power to a nearby housing area via Baycrest Subdivision, the project requiring heavy equipment and the removal of vegetation. Baycrest residents objected, worried that disruption to the hillside would spark erosion, their argument strengthened by testimony from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“These are not stable soils,” Mark Kinney, the NRCS district conservationist, said at the time. “You have to be careful how you meddle with them.”
As a result, the city revoked the work order previously awarded to HEA. Walt Wrede, city manager at the time, wrote, “The city has concluded that it is not in the public interest to jeopardize properties in an older established neighborhood and risk causing additional erosion and slope failure to their detriment.” HEA took the matter to court. In 2008, Kenai Superior Court Judge Carl Bauman decided the city had improperly revoked the right-of-way permit, but denied HEA’s claim for potential damage. In the meantime, the utility had used an alternative route.
Understandably, Gee was shocked when she came home on an afternoon in April 2014 and saw all vegetation stripped from the 30-foot right-of-way of Tanja Court, the muddy, infrequently used street just below Gee’s property, a trench dug, pipe laid, the trench filled in, and the wet, bare earth covered with wood chips, netting and grass seed.
Within a month, loud snaps and pops began waking Gee at night, leading to her discovering the piling foundations beneath her home and a small log cabin used for guests and as an art studio were tipping dangerously downhill. She had new foundations installed. The effort was made extremely difficult by the amount of moisture turning the underlying soil to mud. Water in excess of 100 gallons a day began pouring from the hillside directly behind Gee’s house. She attempted carrying it away a bucket at a time. When that didn’t work, she dug trenches to redirect the flood, but even that wasn’t enough to stop her deck from being destroyed. In a last-ditch effort, Gee hauled 5,000 pounds of sandbags and 80,000 pounds of shot rock to help stabilize the slope behind her home.
Next door, Scott and Carolyn Van Zant’s windows cracked, their toilet no longer sat level, doors wouldn’t close, and movement on their deck violently shook the entire house. They found leaking plumbing under their home, which led to the discovery their concrete-column foundation was, like Gee’s, threatening to collapse. They had a new foundation installed, as well as having metal posts inserted horizontally into the hillside above their home and steel cables attached to their house.
Mature birch trees along the Tanja Court border of property belonging to Shirley Thompson, Gee’s other next-door neighbor, began toppling. The driveway to Mary Hogan’s home on Tanja Court was destroyed during the pipeline’s installation. Upset by clear-cutting in the right of way bordering his property and the mess left by ENSTAR’s subcontractor, Bryan Zak, a member of Homer City Council at the time, began posting online videos of what he observed.
Gee took her concerns and photos documenting the damage to Wrede, who said he would pass everything to ENSTAR, but cautioned Gee against getting her hopes up because “ENSTAR had the right to do work within the right of way.”
When asked how decisions regarding the pipeline project in Baycrest Subdivision had been made, Carey Meyer, Homer’s director of public works at the time, said what had occurred was the result of joint decisions made by ENSTAR, the subcontractor and the city.
Gee reached out to others, including ENSTAR, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, but “everybody either didn’t respond or referred me elsewhere,” she said.
Responding to questions from the Homer News, John Sims, ENSTAR’s spokesperson at the time, said, “There’s definitely some damage that occurred at that location, but not caused by ENSTAR construction work. ENSTAR’s perspective is we did what the city told us to do.”
After examining the soil and subsurface water of Gee’s property, John Bishop of Bishop Engineering said, “There are situations where trenching and the material they put in trenches afterwards can create a way for water to move that wasn’t there before.” The bigger problem, Bishop said, was that the “whole hillside is moving.”
Geologist Mike McCarthy identified two contributing factors: (1) the trenching and clear-cutting and (2) the ignoring of subdivision ditches and culverts. In spite of the ditches and culverts visibly filled with vegetation and mud, Meyer insisted “everything is open and it couldn’t be unmaintained drainage facilities that could cause anything that anyone is complaining about.”
Insufficient drainage along the Sterling Highway above the subdivision also was considered by McCarthy. He documented 195,400 gallons of water coming through the existing drain and emptying directly onto the subdivision in one 24-hour period. Asked in 2015 about the drain, Jill Reese, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ spokesperson, summarized the state’s responsibility as “doing as much as we can to preserve the road, that’s our duty. Preserve the road and keep people moving. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
While responsibility still to be claimed, damages continue piling up. When sandbags wouldn’t work for one of Gee’s neighbors, he laid more than 300 feet of 4-inch pipe to divert water. On Gee’s property, the cabin’s deteriorating foundation makes the cabin unusable. Her fence has toppled. Hand-dug drainage ditches have failed. Windows have broken. Cabinet doors have sprung off hinges. Tiles have popped off walls. Plumbing has come apart. Landscaping Gee created with more than 100 perennials, shrubs and trees, has been destroyed.
Of the many attorneys Gee has contacted, they are either unavailable, already retained, or their fee is beyond her reach with her financial resources consumed by attempts to anchor her home.
“Truthfully, I cannot even calculate the dollars,” said Gee of her effort’s price tag.
Six years after her nightmare began, Gee’s hope remains strong. Hope “that those responsible would come to embrace the responsibility of the position of power they hold.” Hope that her financial losses would be made right “so that I might move on and finish life being productive and caring for others, that I might find sleep in the night again, build another garden somewhere, be creative in a studio somewhere, and see my neighbors restored.”
And she hasn’t given up fighting for her hopes to be realized.
“I will never give up the fight,” she said. “I don’t lay down easy.”