FrackFreeNC billboard as you enter Lee from Moore County
I rather dreaded going to the public hearing of the Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) on the rules they had drafted for fracking in North Carolina. It would be a long day for me. The hearing itself was set for 5-9 P.M. There would be a rally and press conference. I was urged to get there by 4 to sign up to speak. The Sanford Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center is half an hour away. The possible fracking sites are half a mile away from me, across the Deep River in Lee County, where most of the mineral rights have been purchased for gas drilling. Since my own life, livelihood, and home for my old age are at risk, of course I summoned my courage and left home at 3, to be sure I was parked and there in plenty of time to sign up. I took water and a peanut butter sandwich to eat during the hearing.
I’d practiced and timed my speech. We got 3 minutes and were urged by FrackFreeNC, the umbrella org working against fracking here, to focus our comments on the rules themselves. If the rules were sufficiently stringent, the gas companies would stay away.
There was plenty of parking space at 3:30, and I walked in with another no-fracking activist, who told me that we had a room where we could get water and rest. It hasn’t been our usual very hot summer, but it was low 90s that afternoon and steamy. I met activists I’d emailed but never met, like Ed Harris, Terica Luxton, and Theresa Vick.
At 3:45 I went to stand in line to sign up. I saw Jim Lomack for the first time. He was greeting us all warmly. We wore blue shirts and some had “no fracking” logos on them. Ahead of us in line were 20 or so people also wearing blue shirts, who wanted shale gas drilling, which their shirts proclaimed. I had heard that Womack had organized them. He is a Lee County commissioner and a key pro-fracking proponent who is also on the MEC. He was to chair the hearings. He had apparently threatened to call this one off for “security reasons.” I never saw even one policeman or guard of any kind. People were passionate, but they certainly weren’t violent, on either “side.” He had also said that the comments at the hearings would have no effect on the MEC rules. Let’s hope he’s wrong.
Once I signed in, I went outside for the press conference. Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina had organized a very good one, and many impressive speakers spoke about the harms of fracking. Deb Hall from the Cumnock community where coal-mining once took place explained how none of their community owned their mineral rights (they had “split estates” that went back to coal-mining days). They didn’t want to be industrialized.
A woman who works with firefighters said that by law all emergency personnel must know what the chemicals in the fracking fluid are. There can’t be any “trade secrets” about them in case of spills, accidents, fires, or explosions. We also heard from the North Carolina House representative for part of Lee and all of Chatham, Robert Reives, who emphasized that we had not had the due process promised in the legislature before the moratorium on fracking was lifted.
The Civic Center auditorium holds perhaps 500 people. I found a seat near the front. It turned out to be where a lot of pro-fracking people sat. Keely had given me a frack-free sticker to wear. The auditorium began filling up. Off to my right was a table where three Sanford Herald reporters were sitting. In their report the next day they noted that 350 people were present. The News and Observer said “no more than 200,” but the Sanford staff would know better how to estimate the crowd numbers in their civic center.
The three hearing officers sat on the stage. There were two mikes up front for our speeches. To my surprise I was called fairly early–maybe the 10th person. This was my speech.
I’m Judy Hogan from Moncure. I speak for a hundred people I’ve talked with who aren’t here today. My topic is water. The rules are terribly inadequate when, everywhere that fracking has occurred, groundwater and wells have been contaminated. North Carolina is subject to droughts in recent years. The banks of our creeks and rivers are not protected so anyone can put a pipe in and take out all the water they want. There is no serious monitoring of this water extraction in the rules. The permit applicant is the only one who does any reporting of sources, dates, expected average, and maximum withdrawal. Will the fracking companies provide honest reports? I have learned nothing in my study of fracking that suggests that these companies are to be trusted to care about the people living in the area where they will be fracking.
Groundwater withdrawals only require a pump test and determination of “area of influence” or drawdown of the well. Furthermore, the location of our water and the gas under the shale are very close here in Lee, Chatham, and Moore counties. Inevitably the drilling will impact our water supplies. Leaks in fracking pipes are also inevitable. A plan needs to be developed to ensure that we in this area will not have our drinking water sources contaminated. The emerging science shows that drilling and fracking inherently threaten groundwater. There is strong evidence that groundwater contamination occurs and is more likely to occur close to drilling sites. Likewise, the number of well blowouts, spills and cases of surface water contamination has steadily grown. Meanwhile, the gas industry’s use of “gag orders,” non-disclosure agreements and settlements impede scientific study and stifle public awareness of the extent of these problems.
There is no requirement in the rules for an overall record of total water being withdrawn from groundwater (including quarry sources, often fed by groundwater) and from surface water. The withdrawals across the whole local area in which fracking is taking place need to be reviewed together and a plan developed to coordinate water withdrawals. Instead of focusing on gas, we should be focusing on water. Water = Life.
For about an hour we alternated between hearing fracking praised, but without real evidence or understanding of the harms and risks to human beings and animal life, both wild and domestic, and hearing fracking condemned, while people urged that the rules be stricter.
After that the speakers were almost all against fracking. A few didn’t specifically comment on the rules, but most did, urging no trade secrets for fracking chemicals, no open pits for storing waste fluid, better set-backs than a mere 100 feet from rivers and bodies of water, and only 625 feet from homes and schools. The MEC was urged to make the gas companies responsible for damage to landowners’ property, not the landowners themselves, which is how it stands now. And no compulsory pooling, where landowners can be forced to be part of a group of mineral rights leases owned by gas companies.
The two “sides” clapped for their own speakers, but there was no rowdiness. Everything proceeded as planned, and Womack kept it moving. They allowed for 80 or so speakers in 4 hours, but The Sanford Herald reported that 100 spoke.
Personally, I felt supported in my own battle, largely by internet and in my Moncure neighborhood, and by the fact that the Lee County people had awakened to the terrible threat fracking represents to their small county. A year ago, when I was in that civic center auditorium for a professional development workshop for Continuing Education at CCCC, the people I talked to seemed largely unaware of how fracking could ruin their health, their property, and their lives.
Over the years I’ve seen how public opinion, though it may be slow to gather momentum, does, in time, affect those who govern us and bring about change and justice.