Most Alexandrians know her as the former PTA president at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy and the involved parent of an 11-year-old. However, when Kate Watters isnt driving her daughter to school, piano lessons or ballet, she is in Kazakhstan teaching villagers to advocate for cleaner air, water and soil.
A military kid, Watters lived all over the world, landing in Alexandria as a teenager and settling here. In 1976, she spent time in Moscow and fell in love with the Soviet people.
My father was a Soviet specialist and the two years we spent in Moscow made me realize that I wanted to be involved with the Soviet people in some way, she said.
Just what way was an evolution, from undergraduate school at the University of Massachusetts to graduate school at Georgetown to academia at Duke University. Then, the Soviet Union dissolved and Watters became an advocate, finally starting her own organization, Crude Accountability, based in Alexandria.
I saw large oil companies drilling near villages and destroying the health of the people who live near these oil fields, Watters said.
She and her partner, Svetlana Anosova, work mainly with villages near the Karachaganak Field in Kazakhstan.
We have mostly worked with the people of Berezovka, where 45 percent of the population is in poor health because of the toxins coming from the drilling, Watters said. We have taught them to take soil, water and air samples to determine the level and types of toxins and have helped them advocate with the government to relocate the village further away from the oil field.
That advocacy has met with some success. Recently, the Kazakh government has announced plans to take action against another oil company for polluting the environment.
We are cautiously optimistic that this decision will open the door to other decisions like it, Watters said.
The advocacy has not come without peril.
Watters was once taken into custody and questioned by the Kazakh police for several hours. It was very frightening to be told that I could not contact anyone and to know that few people knew where I was, Watters said. However, mostly, I am just followed when I am in the village and stopped frequently and asked to produce my documents. My partner, who is on the ground there, is harassed much more, she said.