NC regulators to measure air quality in Lee County in anticipation of fracking

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2013 

Environmental regulators are moving ahead with plans to start measuring the air quality in Lee County in advance of potential shale gas exploration in the area.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources this week began discussions with Lee County officials about identifying a location to install air quality monitoring equipment. The agency expects to begin monitoring the county’s air this summer or this fall, said Michael Abraczinskas, deputy director of the department’s Division of Air Quality.

The agency wants to establish a baseline air quality level in Lee County before any fracking activity gets under way, he said.

“The monitoring data can be used to provide estimates of exposure and create a valuable database for any future analysis of long-term health impacts or changes in air quality conditions,” the department’s project plan says.

Shale gas exploration, loosely referred to as fracking, involves heavy industry such as drill rigs, trucks and compressors that release diesel fumes and other pollutants.

The work plan for air quality monitoring cites “direct and fugitive air emissions of a complex mixture of pollutants from the natural gas resource itself as well as from diesel engines, tanks, impoundment ponds and on-site materials used in production.”

Shale gas exploration in other states has led to complaints about noise pollution as well as physical irritants caused by industrial emissions.

Fracking is currently prohibited in the state, but developers could start applying for permits March 1, 2015, under a bill pending in the state legislature.

The N.C. Mining & Energy Commission is writing rules to create public safeguard and environmental protection for fracking, but it’s not clear whether the mining commission will impose air emissions limits on fracking operations.

Fracking is an industry term for hydraulic fracturing, a method of accessing natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations by pumping water and chemicals under pressure to break up the shale and free the gas.

DENR has air quality monitoring equipment in Raleigh and also in Montgomery County.

A facility in Lee County would place monitors in the epicenter of the presumed fracking zone.

A monitoring facility is typically the size of a shed, about 8 feet by 8 feet, Abraczinskas said.

The agency’s plan will cost $346,448 in the first year to get established, and $163,662 a year thereafter. It plans to monitor air quality in Lee County for at least one year.

The department recommended baseline air quality monitoring in a comprehensive 484-page report on the potential risks and benefits of shale gas exploration in North Carolina.

It also recommended baseline groundwater testing to help determine whether fracking causes contamination of drinking water sources.

Water testing is already under way. It’s being conducted by Duke University and by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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