Safety concerns nearly grind fracking hearing to a halt

Aug. 22, 2014 @ 05:35 PM

With up to 700 people expected to turn out for the public hearing on hydraulic fracturing in Sanford Friday night, members of the state Mining and Energy Commission were scrambling to find security for the event just hours before the doors of the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center were set to open.

"I'm supposed to open the doors at 3:30 p.m.," said Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, a member of the MEC, told The Herald earlier in the afternoon. "I can delay that a little bit, but I'm going to make a final decision [whether to cancel the hearing] around that time."

Womack said he had been under the impression that the Lee County Sheriff's Department would be providing security for the event, but that he found out on Tuesday that this was not the case.

"[Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter] did it before," Womack said, referring to a public hearing for the Environmental Management Commission in July for which deputies provided security, "at the same place, for the same issue. I guess their jurisdiction has changed since then."

On Friday morning, Womack sent an email to a number of city, county and state law enforcement officials to express his concerns with the event's security.

"I expressed my sincere disappointment to the sheriff about his decision," Womack said in the email, "particularly because it put the MEC in a very difficult predicament this close to the public hearing, potentially elevating the risk to public safety.  That did not sway his decision."

In the email, Womack mentioned flyers referencing a "noise demo" and bearing the message "Don't Be Fracked — Fight Back!" and urging attendees to bring "banners, pots, pans, whistles and drums especially."   

In light of the flyers "advocating lawlessness by certain groups," Womack wrote, "it is my judgment as Hearing Officer that uniformed law enforcement officials must be visibly present in the room for these hearings to be safely and effectively controlled."

Carter maintained that the hearing was a state event within the city limits of Sanford, and that it was not the county's responsibility to provide security.

"I had relayed that to [Lee County BOC Chairman Charlie Parks] about three weeks ago," Carter said. "I imagine he would have told Jim Womack."

Sanford City Manager Hal Hegwer said the city was treating the hearing like any other event within city limits, saying that police could not feasibly provide security for every event.

"The reason for that is the taxpayers would basically be supporting every event that happens in this city," Hegwer said. "There would be no way you could cover all that cost, because any event is open and fair game at that point."

Rep. Mike Stone of Lee County said he had been to a fracking meeting in Chapel Hill where people had made threats and gotten unruly, noting that local police had provided security at that and other fracking meetings.

"I feel like the city of Sanford is playing politics with public safety," Stone said. "And I feel like that's not where we need to be."

Hegwer said that police were aware of the hearing and would be able to respond should security concerns arise. Womack said the N.C. State Highway Patrol would be providing officers around the city as well, but that no officers would be stationed at the civic center.

"It's the county pointing the finger at the city," Womack said. "And then the city points the finger at the county and the state. Any one of them could step up and take charge. They all have jurisdiction. ... It's a shame."

Womack said he had been in touch with Col. William Grey of the N.C. SHP, and had been told that the highway patrol would not be providing security to the event.

"Col. Grey indicated he considered this event to be a matter of local jurisdiction," Womack said in his email, "which contradicted what [city officials] had told me."

By 4 p.m., Womack made the call to move forward with the hearing and began letting people into the auditorium, saying he did not see an imminent threat to public safety.

"We aren't going to delay the hearing any longer," he said as people prepared to file into the civic center. "But the meeting will be adjourned immediately if things get out of hand."