CHAPEL HILL — Opponents of a controversial natural-gas drilling process called fracking dominated the conversation Tuesday evening at a public hearing in Chapel Hill that drew more than 600 people.
The critics cited concerns about potential water contamination, air pollution and damage to agriculture and tourism industries as they urged the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and state officials to take a step back and think about possible long-term damage.
The audience greeted fracking supporters with laughter, hissing and boos when they touted drilling for gas in shale rock as a safe way to build the nations energy independence and create more jobs. Critics interrupted them often, yelling youre lying or tell the truth.
The hearing at East Chapel Hill High School was the second since the states environmental agency issued a draft report concluding that fracking can be done safely in North Carolina with the right laws and regulations in place. A third hearing, announced Tuesday by Democratic state Rep. Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill, will take place Monday in Pittsboro. Several lawmakers were in the audience at the hearing but did not speak.
A 1,400-square-mile area that includes Lee, Moore and Chatham counties is believed to contain underground rock formations with trapped shale gas. The area may reach as far east as Durham and Wake counties.
Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, said fracking is safe if North Carolina learns from other states mistakes and writes its own regulations and permitting requirements for the industry.
In other states, fracking is plagued with questions and accusations about water contamination, earth tremors and other problems, though the severity of the issues is disputed.
Fracking involves drilling a well vertically and then horizontally into the shale formation. Fracturing fluid water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the well under pressure to fracture the shale and help collect the gas.
Roughly 30 protesters from the Sierra Club, an environmental group, and an equal number from FreedomWorks, a tea party group, lined the schools driveway with signs before the hearing.
Judi Mills, who came from Staley for the hearing, said people who support fracking seem to be more concerned about money and jobs than the environment.
Im all for job creation, but not at the cost of water quality, she said. Were not collateral damage. Our children are not collateral damage.
Don McGee, a Statesville resident, said he came to the meeting to join about 30 other FreedomWorks members from several counties who support shale gas drilling.
I feel its safe. We need the energy and we need the jobs here in this state. I believe it can be done the right way, and I believe (government officials) have done a good job working on it, McGee said. I believe North Carolina can do it by watching what other states have done. Do it the right way, and set a precedent for other states to follow.
A final DENR draft report on fracking is due to the legislature by May 1. The agency will take the public comments from the hearings and incorporate them into the final version.