One man tilts at fracking’s risks

April 7, 2013 

For most of his life Charlie Ritter worked as an aerospace design engineer and did all he could to ensure that planes didn’t fall from the sky.

Now 67 and retired in western Cary, he is dedicated to a new safety mission: protecting North Carolina from the hazards of fracking.

Over the last several weeks, Ritter has worked the halls of the Legislative Building meeting with members of a House subcommittee considering a fracking bill and with any other lawmakers who will listen to him.

A silver-haired man in a dark suit, Ritter looks every inch the lobbyist, but he couldn’t be further from it. No one pays him to represent special interests. He’s not partisan. He’s there to represent North Carolina and its choice between two futures.

“I’m just a concerned citizen who doesn’t want to drink carcinogens,” he says.

Ritter has done extensive research on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process that extracts natural gas and oil by pumping chemical-laced water at high pressure into underground rock formations. It’s a messy process that can threaten water supplies and generates vast amounts of toxic waste water. It’s also blamed for triggering small earthquakes when the waste water is injected into deep wells.

Nonetheless, it has created economic booms in parts of Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas and other states. Now North Carolina is about to get on board, with the drilling probably centered in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties. The General Assembly has approved fracking, with a moratorium until the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission prepares regulations. But a new bill, Senate Bill 76, would circumvent key safety and oversight provisions. The bill has passed the Senate and is being considered by the House. Ritter is battling to have it amended to include extra safety provisions.

Ritter lives with his wife, Linda, in the Carolina Preserve, an over-55 community on the edge of Cary that extends into Chatham County. He and several other residents became alarmed about fracking coming close to their homes after viewing “Gasland,” a documentary that focuses on the pollution and economic disruption that can come with a fracking boom. They formed a group Preserve Carolina(transposing their housing development’s name) and set about writing letters to newspapers and meetings with officials.

A few weeks ago, Ritter split from the group because he’s given up on stopping fracking. Now he’s concentrating on making the process as safe as possible.

When he visits the legislature, Ritter pulls a rolling briefcase stuffed with maps, reports and studies.

“I come armed,”says Ritter, a Bronx native who speaks with a New York accent. “You challenge me, I’ve got all the answers. I can back up whatever I say.”

What he says is unsettling. He says fracking will inevitably pollute Jordan Lake, the reservoir that serves Triangle counties. He points out that there’s no safe place yet to dispose of fracking waste fluid.

And then there’s the remote, but scary possibility that a earthquake induced by deep-well injection could run along a fault line in the area near the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County. In that event, he says, water that cools a large collection of spent control rods stored at the plant could drain away.

“The odds of something like that happening are very small, but if it happens, it would be very serious,” he says. Ritter is urging lawmakers to ban fracking within 25 miles of the plant.

Getting the attention of busy lawmakers isn’t easy. Some have to cancel at the last minute, leaving Ritter on the prowl to deliver a fracking tutorial to someone else. But when does get an audience, Ritter says he gets a good reaction.

But he’s sometimes surprised that legislators are so uninformed about the process of fracking, its effects elsewhere and its risks in North Carolina.

“When you talk to them about fracking, it’s amazing how little they know,” he says. “I’m telling them about fracking and their jaws drop.”

Some Republicans urge Ritter to spread the word to other members of the majority who will decide when and how fracking comes to North Carolina.

“I’ve had three Republicans tell me that – ‘You’ve got to tell more Republicans,’” he says. “I get received very well because I go in there with data.”

Ritter’s strength as a first-time advocate is that he’s an aerospace design engineer. It’s also his weakness. He thinks facts will persuade politicians. But there are some facts they don’t want to know or want to dismiss. Fracking isn’t just about drilling. It’s about money, jobs, taxes, big political contributors, landowners and votes.

That’s a lot for one retired engineer to design an effective argument against. But Ritter pledges to keep trying.

“When people’s lives are at stake, you really have to do everything you can to make sure that it’s safe,” he says. “Something like this could ruin the state of North Carolina.”

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