MINING AND ENERGY COMMISSION: Study group confers about roads, regulatory powers

Jan. 17, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

If and when hydraulic fracturing begins in North Carolina — with much of it centered in this area — experts say it will affect water supply, traffic patterns, levels of various types of pollution and a host of other factors for which the regulations are now in flux — and some of which came up in conversation during a meeting Wednesday.

The state's Mining and Energy Commission recently began discussing which regulations to propose to the General Assembly. And since the process, more commonly known as fracking, will likely affect only a handful of North Carolina counties — and even then, only certain parts of those counties — much of the discussion will focus on the regulatory powers of city and county governments.

Wednesday morning, the commission's Local Government Study Group gathered to discuss that very subject, as well as the potential impact the natural gas industry could have on local roads. Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack announced beforehand that no spontaneous comments from the crowd of about 30 people would be tolerated, and all questions from the public had to be submitted in writing. A similar study group meeting last Friday didn't have those rules enforced and was punctuated by periodic comments and questions from the audience.

This study group is led by Sanford City Councilman Charles Taylor, who participated by conference call Wednesday due to a contagious illness.

Emily McGraw, a representative from the N.C. Department of Transportation, said she and several others recently visited communities with ongoing natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and were struck by the sheer amount of activity at the sites.

She said energy companies typically install a drill pad on top of mineral rights they own or lease, and that each pad has six to eight wells. Each well requires about 1,450 round trips by heavy equipment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while the site is active — which she said could be bad news for roads and bridges in the area.

"A lot of roads out there were not built for the amount of traffic that would come with this industry," McGraw said, noting that about half the bridges in Moore County, for example, have wooden components or weight limits and might not be able to handle hundreds of thousands of additional semi-trucks.

Traffic would also be an issue, she said, because the trucks often move in large convoys, reportedly causing problems in Pennsylvania.

"If (mining companies) were building or working on a site, and there was an intersection nearby, (the trucks) would take it, meaning if the light was green, yellow or red, they would be moving through," she said.

Jim Womack, the chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission and a Lee County Commissioner, noted several other factors to consider as well: the necessity to route any trucks carrying hazardous material away from populated areas, and the problems that would occur — particularly in the western part of Wake County — when convoys go out during the morning and evening rush hours.

"Suddenly you've got hundreds of trucks competing with peak commuter traffic, and it's really a perfect storm," he said.

He said the commission might look into requiring companies to decrease their typical reliance on trucks by piping in water and utilizing railroads or even river barges for some shipments — or at least encourage meetings between local governments and energy companies to try to convince the latter to use those alternative measures.

"Truck congestion is significant in these areas (studied in Pennsylvania), so I suggest we be proactive," he said.

The group also heard a presentation from members of two lobbying groups — the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners — about the ability of cities to expand some of their regulatory powers outside city limits through a process called extra-territorial jurisdiction.

That process is less complete than annexation and only allows cities to apply some regulations — including those on building codes, open space acquisition and erosion control, among others — to a ring around a city's limits, which could extend up to three miles around Sanford and one mile around Broadway.

However, Womack said, local governments will only be able to regulate matters the state doesn't, forcing the commission to weigh the pros and cons for many issues to decide how to balance the needs of North Carolina as a whole, the needs of local residents and governments and the needs of the mining companies.

"For example, a noise ordinance could be enforced (in extra-judicial territory)," he said. "But if the state had a pre-emptory rule that said you can't apply a noise ordinance in periods of hydraulic fracturing — which is a noisy process — then it wouldn't apply."

The study group's next meeting will be Feb. 15 in a yet-to-be-determined Chatham County location. More information about the Mining and Energy Commission and all its committees and study groups can be found online at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission.