A wide range of views are expressed at a public hearing on fracking held Friday in Lee County.

By Gabe Rivin

In a public hearing in Sanford on Friday, North Carolina residents pled for greater health protections from natural gas drilling, arguing in often-emotional terms that drilling’s health risks outweigh the industry’s potential economic benefits.

The hearing, the second of four planned for August and September, offered a public forum for residents whose health will be most affected by drilling. Sanford lies within North Carolina’s Triassic Basin shale deposit, where the energy industry could receive permits to begin drilling as early as next spring.

The public hearings are the culmination of nearly two years of work by the Mining and Energy Commission, the regulatory body developing rules for natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The MEC is currently taking public comments on its draft rules, both in writing and at public hearings, and is required to finalize the rules by January before the state begins to issue permits.

An anti-fracking advocate beats a drum outside a Lee County public hearing.
Drilling opponents played drums outside the public hearing, in an apparent attempt to disrupt the meeting.

The evening hearing at Sanford’s Wicker Civic Center drew a crowd of more than 400, with a large majority of the 86 speakers opposed to drilling. Protestors raucously beat drums outside the closed-door auditorium and anti-fracking signs lined the grass path leading up to the building.

General anger, specific concerns

Though the hearings are intended to focus on the rules themselves, many of the speakers vented their general frustrations about drilling’s health effects and what they see as regulators’ indifference to their concerns.

“I’m sure that you all sit back and pat yourselves on the back like you’ve done a good job,” said Ken Laughinghouse, a Sanford resident.

“Start over again; listen to the people of North Carolina, the landowners. We suspect that you’re listening more to the Koch brothers and perhaps ALEC than you are to the people of North Carolina,” Laughinghouse said, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council.

A drilling opponent addresses the MEC panel.
A drilling opponent addresses the three Mining and Energy Commissioners onstage. Photo credit: Kat Bawden

Three MEC commissioners – Kenneth Taylor, James Womack and Amy Pickle – sat onstage, silently listening as numerous speakers berated them for drafting what the speakers called inadequate rules. Under the format of the hearings, the commissioners will not respond to comments.

Though many speakers used their three minutes to vent their anger, other residents explained their concerns about the health effects of specific rules. Several residents said they’re concerned by the MEC’s chemical-disclosure rule, which allows drillers to shield from the public’s knowledge some chemicals pumped into the ground during fracking.

“We are concerned, and must insist that all chemicals, especially those that are proven carcinogens, be made public information before any fracking takes place,” said Richard Hayes, a resident of Lee County. “We reject the notion that so-called trade secrets are more important than the health of our citizens.”

Other residents said they’re concerned by the MEC’s setbacks rule, which sets the minimum distances between gas wells and homes, rivers and schools. The current rules set a minimum setback of 650 feet from residents’ homes.

Drilling supporters address MEC panel.
Though a minority on Friday night, state residents showed up to support natural gas drilling. Photo credit: Kat Bawden

And still others said they’re concerned about the rules that allow drillers to store drilling fluids in open pits.

“Lee County has often been the site of proposals for landfills of one kind or another, and we know from the effects of these wastewater pits that they can be quite dangerous,” said Brooks Gage, who chairs Sanford’s environment board. “We encourage you to select closed-container storage for the wastewater.”

Other anti-fracking speakers raised concerns about the MEC’s lack of rules for air pollution and the possibility that drilling could contaminate their well water.

But perhaps the most consistent worry came from landowners who fear they’ll be forced to allow drilling on their property, under a system known as compulsory pooling. This practice allows drillers to secure permits to a resident’s land as long as enough neighbors have also signed on.

Compulsory pooling is legal under a 1945 state law, and an MEC study group last September recommended that the practice be allowed as drillers arrive in North Carolina.

Its fate is not secure though. This year’s drilling bill, the Energy Modernization Act, requires the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to study the issue. By next October, DENR will need to make recommendations to the General Assembly about changes in state law.

In support of drilling

Despite the sizeable majority of drilling opponents, a group of speakers did offer its support for gas drilling.

The majority of these drilling supporters wore blue shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Energy Creates Jobs.” Underneath that slogan was a link to the website of the North Carolina Energy Coalition, a group that advocates oil and gas drilling in North Carolina and whose members include the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, two industry trade groups.

One drilling supporter questioned the evidence that fracking is harmful to public health and said that the state needs a new source of jobs.

“North Carolina has suffered the loss of our textiles, of our furniture,” said Ann Stokes, a resident of Davidson County, which lies outside the area of North Carolina’s likely shale deposits. “I say give us a chance to make North Carolina energy independent.”

Frack-Free NC Alliance hands out bumper stickers.
An activist hands out bumper stickers for the Frack-Free NC Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups that oppose drilling. Photo credit: Kat Bawden

But despite an early showing from drilling supporters, after the second hour of the four-hour hearing, the remaining speakers were uniformly anti-drilling. Many of them used their three minutes to criticize the drilling industry, the MEC and, more broadly, what they see as the exploitation of the environment in pursuit of profits.

Several speakers called for either a moratorium on drilling or a ballot initiative to allow residents to decide the matter.

After the hearing was finished, Womack, whose term as chairman of the MEC recently ended, said that these general comments were as not effective as those requesting specific changes to rules.

“The specific things we’re listening for are directed comments on the 124 or so rules we wrote,” he said. “If they talk about the statutes, why we should or shouldn’t be fracking, we listen, but they’re really not having an impact.”

Womack also noted that the MEC will respond to every written comment it receives until the end of September, when the public-comment period closes.

‘We’ll never know’

Rep. Mike Stone (R-Sanford), who chairs the House’s energy committee, sat at the front of the auditorium as speaker after speaker denounced their elected leaders for not having listened to residents’ concerns.

When asked how the residents’ comments would impact his work with the General Assembly, Stone said, “It makes me recognize that we need to do a better job of getting information out.”

Stone declined to speculate about new drilling legislation in next year’s long session. He said that until the final rules are published, “It’d be a little premature to comment.”

As the night drew on, many speakers remained angry and even tearful as they gained their chance to address the three MEC commissioners who sat onstage.

One speaker told the story of three family members in Pennsylvania who lived in an area that’s heavy with drilling.

“Three in our northeastern Pennsylvania family have died within 18 months of each other, all from cancer: my brother-in-law, his wife and their son,” said Chris Gardner. As she continued to tell the story, she stopped and braced herself for tears.

“We’ll never know if their deaths were linked to fracking … but we will always wonder,” she said.

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Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...