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Fracking Rule Makers Sort Thousands of Comments

The commission has reportedly received public comments that have caused them “to really go back and do our homework,''

Tue October 14, 2014 - Southeast Edition

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) A member of the North Carolina commission that’s developing fracking regulations said the panel has received dozens of public comments that have caused them “to really go back and do our homework,’’ but thousands of others offer unusable input such as: “Don’t Frack N.C.’’

The Mining and Energy Commission expected to receive 50,000 comments by the time the period for public input ended, though that could be exceeded if there’s a late surge, said commission member James Womack. Hundreds of comments were delivered at four public meetings around the state marked by chanting and singing by people who fear toxic chemicals could escape the wells.

Still, he said, the meetings and online submissions have produced astute recommendations for and against fracking.

“Each of the four hearings had at least a dozen commenters where they had actually digested the rules and had specific comments ... and had some very innovative and thought-provoking suggestions that we have given really serious consideration to, that caused us to really go back and do our homework,’’ Womack said.

Womack and two other hearing officers will work with commission staff to prepare a report on the comments for the entire 15-member commission to consider at meetings in October and November. The commission plans to vote on any rule changes by late this year, and the Legislature will have the final say during its session starting in January.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law this summer clearing the way for permits to be issued as soon as next spring for hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals to break apart underground rocks so oil and gas can escape.

Fracking proponents say it can be done safely and that affordable natural gas helps manufacturers create more jobs.

Scientists believe pockets of natural gas exist in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties southwest of Raleigh, but there are disputes about how much is there.

Crystal Feldman, a spokeswoman of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said that the state plans to study isotopes from existing wells in the shale basin that runs through those counties during the current fiscal year.

The state also is seeking bids to take rock samples in the Cumberland-Marlboro Basin, which runs across Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties. Testing this fiscal year was scuttled in the mountains and closer to the coast.

Much of the feedback Womack has seen pertains to about 20 of the more than 100 proposed rules. Commenters are concerned about the distance wells must be from homes, chemical disclosures, groundwater testing, permitting and well construction standards.

Still, thousands of comments simply say “Don’t Frack N.C.’’

“We’ve gotten thousands of comments on things we have no authority over,’’ he said, adding that those comments will be noted in a report for legislators but won’t affect his commission’s work.

As many as 500 people attended each public hearing, with many giving impassioned speeches to cheers and boos. The meeting in Sanford was nearly canceled because of security concerns.

“We had to turn the volume up on the speakers several times because they had a band outside trying to drown us out,’’ Womack said of that meeting.

However, Womack and commission chairman Vikram Rao said they weren’t surprised by the unruliness.

“If anything, I am surprised by how well it all went. Look, I went to grad school in California in the late 60s. Trust me, I know protests. As protests go, this was pretty normal,’’ said Rao, who attended the meetings in Culhowee and Raleigh.

Rao said the commission has backup manpower in place to handle any late surge in comments.

“We have no choice but to consider every one,’’ he said.

On Sept. 26, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters turned in 11,000 comments. Canvassers asked people in Wake and Mecklenberg counties to sign statements expressing concern about the rules.

“We call on the MEC today to heed the cries of North Carolinians across this state. Don’t cut corners in order to entice in an industry that will leave us sick and empty handed,’’ Aiden Graham, the group’s field director, said at a news conference, “Strengthen the rules.’’

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