Citizens raise concerns at hearing about water rules

Jul. 03, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

With a muffled beat of bass and snare drums sounding from just outside, anti-fracking activists spent Tuesday evening voicing concerns to several state regulatory officials who had come to Sanford.

The event was a public hearing held by the state's Environmental Management Commission on a new regulatory rule it's proposing about stormwater runoff, as well as slight tweaks to four existing rules for the management of wastewater produced by businesses. The meeting at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center drew dozens of attendees — including many regulars at anti-drilling events in the area — who spoke about the rules and how they will affect hydraulic fracturing.

Water affects virtually every stage of hydraulic fracturing, even though many only think of the connection between the two as water being the main ingredient in fracking fluid. But whether it's rainwater potentially contaminated by pollutants on the drilling site, open waste pits that could overflow in a heavy storm or just regular construction-related runoff, many of the speakers said Tuesday that the prospect of drilling has them concerned about water.

"Erosion impacts, sediment impacts and stormwater impacts ... are the leading cause of problems for fracking operations," said Grady McAllie, an environmental lawyer and policy expert with the N.C. Conservation Network. "So it's really important the commission gets this right."

Adding to the potential for water contamination, many of the known shale gas reserves in this area are near the banks of the Deep River. That has the Fayetteville Public Works Commission — which provides water to Fayetteville, Harnett County and Fort Bragg — keeping an eye on developments and regulations, since its source for drinking water is downstream, an official from the company said Tuesday.

He said his group generally supported the rules in question but had a handful of technical criticisms and suggestions.

Elaine Chiosso, the Haw Riverkeeper and executive director of the Haw River Assembly, praised the proposed rules being discussed Tuesday for covering holes in federal regulations, which routinely exempt the oil and gas industry. Every rule discussed Tuesday, on the other hand, specifically singled out that industry. But Chiosso thought the rules could go further.

The new proposal for regulating stormwater runoff, as presented Tuesday, would apply to exploration, development and production activities during the life of an oil and gas well. But Chiosso and several others said it should also apply to construction and when the company is finished and is moving the equipment out.

"That's when I think the contaminants are going to get in there," Chiosso said, "the daily travel back and forth, the spills."

A Chatham County political activist, Diana Hales, spoke about less frequent issues that could, however, have a much larger potential for destruction — hurricanes and floods.

Evoking the destruction of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, she gave a reminder of how open hog lagoons — referring to pits filled with raw sewage from pig farms — were overcome by the storm, washing much of eastern North Carolina in their unsanitary concoction.

Many states allow hydraulic fracturing fluid to be stored in open pits as well, and North Carolina is considering that option, too.

"This is a health risk that will be borne by citizens this state is supposed to protect," Hales said, asking the officials to reconsider allowing open waste pits.

People who missed the meeting can find the proposed rules at portal.ncdenr.org/web/wq/rules (with no www), and anyone can submit a written opinion or request to Evan Kane at the Division of Water Resources, 1611 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699.

The Environmental Management Commission, which hosted the meeting, is separate from the Mining and Energy Commission (MEC), the body tasked with writing most of the suggested regulations for oil and gas operations.

Jim Womack, the chairman of the MEC and a Lee County Commissioner, was in attendance Tuesday, along with fellow commissioner Kirk Smith. The officials in charge offered both men opportunities to address the crowd before and after the public comments, although they declined both times.