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Fracking opposition organizes in WNC

fr frackingCandice Caldwell Day and her husband Shayne recently went to Andrews Airport in Cherokee County.

“To hold up a really big sign,” she said. 

Day and her husband went to the airport to greet Gov. Pat McCrory as he arrived for the GOP state convention. They wanted to let him know how they felt about state lawmakers’ recent green lighting of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

The couple moved to the area from West Virginia. They are avid paddlers. And now, fledgling organizers for a stand against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Western North Carolina.

Having moved from a fracking state, Day said she was disappointed to see North Carolina open the door for the extraction method, which involves injecting explosives into the ground to create fissures before pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into the cracks so that any oil or gas will make its way to the surface.

“We’ve been living amongst the fracking hell that is West Virginia,” Day said.

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During their trip to see McCrory at the airport, the couple met about 20 other likeminded people. They found out the Canary Coalition, a Jackson County environmental organization focused on air quality issues, was organizing a protest across the street from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, where the GOP was holding its annual convention.

“So, then we went there,” said Day.

At the GOP protest, they found even more people freaked out about fracking. They began to organize, and the Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina was soon born in Swain County. 

“It’s become a huge network,” Day said.

The group held its first meeting in June in Bryson City. Around 40 people showed up. 

These fracking opponents cringe at the purported specter of homes with flammable taps due to contaminated groundwater. They decry the unknown chemical make-up of the compounds used in the fracking process and question the possibility of a link between an increase in natural gas exploration and earthquakes. They encourage people to watch “Gasland,” a documentary film and staple viewing in anti-fracking circles.

Fracking supporters, however, say that groundwater contamination isn’t much of a concern with wells that drill as deep as the ones proposed, and they prop up the latest technology as something of a miracle, capable of extracting valuable resources while keeping contaminants out of the environment. 

But groups like the Coalition are also questioning certain aspects of North Carolina’s fracking legislation — like the specification that local governments cannot disallow the practice — and they are concerned with the swiftness with which it became law, even as the regulations to govern fracking are still being hammered out.

“They’re trying to hide something from people,” Day mused. “To make it sound like the sweetest deal ever.”

The legislators behind it, however, claim that the fracking issue has been hashed out over the past two years and point to the opportunity legislators will have in the next session to strike down any of the specific rules the Mining and Energy Commission comes up with.

As communities in North Carolina consider the particulars of the debate, the Coalition Against Fracking in WNC aims to make sure people in the western counties know what fracking is and are up to speed on what the group sees as concerning environmental issues stemming from it. Recently the fracking opponents went to a Swain County Commissioners meeting. Their message found a readily receptive audience.

“I can tell you right quick I’m not for it,” Swain Commissioner Donnie Dixon says. “I’m against it 100 percent.”


Rally call in Swain

Dixon is quick to relay his take on fracking.

“I’m totally against it,” the commissioner said. “It can cause cancer, it’s been on the news, it can ruin the drinking water, it can pollute the air.”

Lawmakers who supported this year’s fracking legislation are summed up in short order by the Swain official. 

“Anyone who voted for it is in it for the money,” Dixon said. 

The commissioner is not alone. His cohorts on the board have publicly voiced unanimous opposition to the possibility of hydraulic fracturing in Swain County.

The board’s stance didn’t surprise Swain County Manager Kevin King.

“All of ‘em have told me they’re against fracking,” King said. 

Swain is joined in its opposition by other communities in the region. Recently, Webster, a community in Jackson County, passed an ordinance formally declaring its position on the issue.

“I must say that I am very proud of my little town for taking a stand against this big issue,” said Danell Moses, a member of Webster’s town board. 

Moses said board members recently began studying the issue of hydraulic fracturing.

“I thought, well, I’ve heard a lot about this, I really need to brush up on this and dig into this. The further I dug, the more scared I got,” said Moses. “I think everyone was doing their own research and coming to the same conclusion.”

Webster Mayor Nick Breedlove said the town passed its ordinance against fracking to protect the environment and described the measure as being “proactive” and an effort to “urge caution.” The ordinance references “documented cases of water contamination” and “potentially lethal, toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.” 

“I was born here, I grew up here, I plan to live here a long time so I really care a lot about the mountains and its people,” Breedlove said. “I really don’t think we know enough about fracking to green light it yet.”

The mayor also questioned moving ahead on hydraulic fracturing with the regulations governing the process in North Carolina still being written. 

“I don’t know if we need to rush into the dark unprepared,” he said.

Breedlove questioned the prudence in taking potential environmental risks for an oft-touted upside of the natural gas rush: jobs.

“Would you trade job creation for your natural habitat?” he asks. “What’s the point of giving somebody a job if they come home to their wife and kids and potentially contaminated water?”

Kolleen Begley, mayor of Forest Hills, another Jackson County community, said a formal declaration similar to Webster’s was in the pipes there as well. 

In Swain County commissioners have requested that the town manager reach out to other western counties about fracking. They’d like to be able to present a unified front of opposition. 

“Maybe going into a combined resolution,” King said. 

He’s not sure what kind of response he’ll find when he shops the no-fracking platform around the region. 

“I don’t know if other counties are going to take a stand at all,” Swain’s manager said. 


‘So much misinformation out there’

North Carolina Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, sees this year’s Energy Modernization Act as a victory. He proudly takes ownership of helping to cruise the state’s fracking legislation through the process in Raleigh. 

“I not only voted for the law, I was one of the co-sponsors,” Davis said. “I’m really comfortable with what they’ve done.”

The senator isn’t impressed with local resolutions passed in opposition to fracking. He notes that the state law overrides local governments’ control. 

“It’s a state law, so you can’t have all these regulations in different towns and different communities,” he said.

Davis hears from a lot of people about the state’s recent move on fracking.

“Overwhelmingly, they’re against fracking,” he said. “I think those people are concerned. My background is in science and I’m concerned as well. But as long as we can do this safely, I think it’s a good thing.”

According to Davis, North Carolina doesn’t have to choose between protecting its environment and pursuing its natural resources. 

“It’s not an either-or situation,” the senator said. “We can do both.”

And, the senator says, we should do both. Davis describes natural gas as “one thing in the quiver” of North Carolina’s energy resources and argues that it shouldn’t be left on the table, or in the ground. 

“Using natural gas as an energy source is a lot less of a carbon footprint than coal, for example,” Davis said. “Why would we just leave all these resources in the ground as long as we can harvest them responsibly?”

The senator brushes off the mention of environmental concerns. He argues that North Carolina’s law provides for adequate environmental protections and points out that everything has its risks.

“Everything we do is a risk,” Davis said. “How many people die on North Carolina highways every year? Our job as legislators is to minimize the risk. And the risks of hydraulic fracturing are minimal.”

The senator said he is concerned about what he called “misinformation” about fracking. He would like to assemble a panel of experts in the field of hydraulic fracturing and arrange for public forums in an effort to educate people.

“So people can learn about fracking, because there’s so much misinformation out there,” Davis said. 


Getting schooled

In Jackson County, Chuck Wooten received Swain’s invitation to consider coming out in opposition to fracking in an email. He hasn’t brought it up to his commissioners yet, but there may be something on the agenda in August. 

It’s just as well. Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam isn’t ready to wade into the fracking debate anyway. 

“I think you need to be educated before you make a decision,” he said. “I’m going to be a little better educated before I just jump out there and say ‘no fracking.’”

The chairman said he was planning to attend a Jackson County Planning Board session later in the week, where Western Carolina University geosciences and natural resources associate professor Cheryl Waters-Tormey is scheduled to make a presentation and field questions about hydraulic fracturing.

Debnam isn’t overly concerned about fracking in Western North Carolina. He’s not expecting much natural gas to be found in the region. 

“The chances of them finding natural gas is about zero,” the chairman said. “I think someone’s just spending some money that’s been made available to drill some test wells, but I don’t think it’ll go any further than that.”

Macon County Commissioner Chairman Kevin Corbin also said he’d like to be better educated before taking a stance on the issue. His board has yet to discuss the issue.

“I certainly wouldn’t mind a discussion, but it hasn’t come up,” Corbin said. “I don’t feel like I’m that well versed in. it. I probably need to be. It’s something that seems like a hot topic and I probably need to educate myself.”

Macon County Manager Derek Roland said he hadn’t heard from King yet. But he imagines his commissioners will be discussing the topic of fracking soon enough.

“I’d say,” Roland said. “It’s getting pretty hot isn’t it?”

In Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties, respective county managers reported that local leaders were not yet taking a formal position on hydraulic fracturing. In Haywood County, Commissioner Kevin Ensley said that he would also like more information before forming an opinion about issue. 

“All I’ve seen is news reports and you can’t really base it on that,” the commissioner said, describing natural gas as the “future for America.” 

Ensley stressed personal property rights and frowned on local governments injecting themselves — “If you have a family and they have an opportunity to do that, they ought to be able to without the government telling them they can’t” — but said he also would like to learn more about environmental concerns raised by fracking opponents.

“You ask the people in the industry about it and they say this is all overblown — but those people are in the industry,” Ensley said. 

If he finds that fracking looks like something that can be done safely, then he’s on board — “As long as its doesn’t destroy our water table I’m all for it” — but like Debnam, he doesn’t expect hydraulic fracturing to be widespread in Western North Carolina and doesn’t want to get overly invested in the debate. 

“I don’t think there are pockets to be drilled,” said Ensley. “If there’s nothing in the West I don’t want to put a lot of effort into something that isn’t coming to the West.”


‘It just shows where we stand’

The folks with Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina aren’t sure where this fracking opposition is going. They would like to see a legal challenge mounted against provisions of the law barring local governments from disallowing fracking.

“That would be ideal, right?” said Day.

And local resolutions, or anything regional Swain is able to drum up, are only for sport and for the record. 

“It’s really a political stance is what it is, because, you know, there’s not much the board can do,” King said. “They can’t stop anyone from coming in and doing something. It just shows where we stand.”

Breedlove knows that too. But, still, he feels Webster’s ordinance was the right thing to do.

“We want to go on record that we wholeheartedly oppose hydraulic fracturing,” the mayor said, adding that he’s finding support for the action among his constituents. “Everyone’s been wholly supportive of it. I have not heard one negative comment.”

Day is optimistic that the swell of opposition against fracking in Western North Carolina will ultimately have some impact. She’s encouraged, at least, about the energy.

“I have hope,” said Day. “People are coming together to defend this beautiful place. It’s good.”


Far off sound of fracking hearings

Recently, a collection of groups from Western North Carolina requested that the North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission schedule public hearings for the western portion of the state on oil and gas rules now being drafted. Currently, three hearings are scheduled — in Raleigh, Sanford and Reidsville — but all located are considerable distance from WNC. 

“We feel that since our area might be directly affected by fracking down the line, we have a right to have our voices heard,” said Sally Morgan, of Clean Water for North Carolina. 

The request for additional hearings in the west is signed onto by 17 organizations, including Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina, regional Sierra Clubs, the Canary Coalition, Appalachian Voices, League of Women Voters of Macon County and Greenpeace of NC. 

Morgan received a reply from MEC Chairman Jim Womack — “We recognize the strong interest for an additional hearing in the western counties” — with an assurance that the commission would try to “coordinate a suitable event.”

“That was a week ago, and I haven’t heard anything back,” Morgan said recently.

Harry Baughn, the mayor of Hayesville, in Clay County, recently wrote Breedlove about his efforts appealing for an additional hearing. 

“The chairman indicated that he would look at a location such as WCU, however a subsequent email stated that DENR in Raleigh stated there was no travel money to add a hearing in our region,” Baughn emailed Webster’s mayor.

According to Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, which houses the MEC, no additional hearings are currently being scheduled. 

“I don’t know if they’re planning to do so at this point,” the spokesman said.

The slated hearings, he explained, were located in areas likely to get quicker attention from natural gas efforts. 

“These are close to the basins where natural gas extraction is most likely to begin in North Carolina,” Kritzer said. “Right now in Western North Carolina, we have yet to even gather rocks. We’re still years from anything in the way of drilling in Western North Carolina.”

The DENR spokesman noted that Western residents needn’t travel to the hearing in order to log their comments. Public comments can be submitted to the commission, he said, from July 15 to Sept. 15.


Wanna go?

•Jackson County Planning Board meeting Q&A with WCU geosciences and natural resources professor Cheryl Waters-Tormey. Jackson County Justice Center in Sylva. 6 p.m., July 10.

•Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina meeting. Marianna Black Library in Bryson City. 6:30 p.m., July 15.

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