Protesters condemn fracking at rally

Nov. 20, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Holding anti-fracking signs and caricatures of N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, a small crowd of activists gathered along with local leaders and curious onlookers Tuesday morning outside the Lee County Courthouse to speak out against hydraulic fracturing.

The organizers of the protest, statewide group Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), had earlier sent a letter to McCrory expressing concern about fracking — and especially a host of alleged violations of individual and landowner rights associated with the controversial practice that would center on Lee County if allowed to happen.Lou Zeller,  executive director of BREDL, told the crowd of about two dozen people that the state would be aiding and abetting infringements upon people’s liberties if it were to allow forced/compulsory pooling. He said he hopes McCrory will respond to the letter and agree to sit down and hear the group’s concerns.

Lois Gibbs, an activist often called the “mother of the grassroots environmental movement” for her work fighting pollution in New York, was the featured speaker. She said she has traveled to many communities where fracking has already occurred and has seen nothing positive.

Between increased rates of serious traffic accidents, disorderly conduct charges and even sexually transmitted diseases, which she said were all higher in fracking communities than in other places, Gibbs said even people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists should be concerned about fracking.

“If you don’t care about health, care about the environment,” Gibbs said. “And if you don’t care about health and environment, at least care about your community.”

She also railed against the fact that fracking is regulated by individual states instead of the federal government, meaning Environmental Protection Agency rules such as the Clean Water Act won’t apply.

“Any other industry across North Carolina has to abide by those rules,” she said. “... Fracking does not. Why are they special?”

But not everyone in the audience was swayed. Albert Eckle, a communications specialist working for the American Petroleum Institute, said afterward that many of the remarks Gibbs, Zeller and other speakers made were nothing but scare tactics.

“Before you start saying what’s wrong with North Carolina, at least let them take the time to get it right,” Eckle said, pointing out that the state is still working to draft rules and regulations.

“If you don’t want growth, you don’t want this industry,” Eckle said later, adding that Lee County itself has a proud history of tapping into the ground and finding success: “This is a county that has grown up on its natural resources. It used to be the brick capital of the world.”

Yet Debbie Hall, a fracking opponent who lives in the Cumnock area, pointed to another industry focused on the area’s natural resources that didn’t go so well. Coal mining disasters in 1895, 1900 and 1925 in the Cumnock area killed a combined 117 people, and Hall said the negative influence of the mines still lives on in the form of split estates, in which people own their land but not what’s under it — and if the mineral owner decides to proceed with fracking, landowners have no choice but to go along.

“No one has spoken to our rights yet,” Hall said, although she did thank Lee County Commissioner Kirk Smith for attending for a short time. He was the only elected official present.

Hall told the audience she recently walked to a nearby pond with her young granddaughter, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, but left worried that pollution from fracking could ruin those trips.

Eckle, though, said there has never been any proof of groundwater contamination caused by fracking.

But Eckle was in the clear minority among the audience, most of whom held signs and encouraged the speakers. Addressing them, Gibbs said there’s still time for people to reverse course in North Carolina — because although fracking is moving forward, it’s still illegal for the time being.

“You guys have a moratorium,” she said. “You need to step up to the plate, take control and don’t let it happen here.”

Gibbs will be speaking again tonight in Chatham County at 7 p.m. at the multi-purpose room of Central Carolina Community College, 764 West St., Pittsboro.