Point of View

Fracking, DENR and the pits in North Carolina

March 21, 2014 

Last month North Carolina made the national news as millions of gallons of toxic sludge from a Duke Energy coal ash storage pit spilled into the Dan River, creating the third-largest environmental disaster of its kind in the nation. The Dan River contamination was so severe that residents downstream were told not to even touch the water. This happened on the watch of the N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources, our state’s first line of protection for our environment and natural resources.

What was DENR doing all these years when citizens and environmental groups tried to sound the alarm on the obvious hazards of seepage from Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash storage pits? The agency was actively blocking citizens’ lawsuits, slowing down the regulatory process, imposing modest fines and doing nothing to require any clean up of the leaky pits. Now DENR has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in a federal investigation to determine whether federal safeguards went unchecked.

Unfortunately, the Dan River disaster is only the beginning of pit disasters looming in our state’s future. DENR has posted draft rules on its website for storing toxic fracking fluids in open pits as close as 200 feet from “a stream, rivers, watercourse, pond, lake or other artificial body of water.” With only a 200-foot setback, the distance from pit to reservoir is 80 percent to 90 percent closer than many states allow.

Fracking pits are even more dangerous than coal ash pits because:

• Fracking fluid is more liquid than coal ash slurry and flows more easily downhill into reservoirs like Jordan Lake and the rivers that feed it.

• The toxins and carcinogens in fracking fluid will not be disclosed per draft DENR rules, making it more difficult for emergency medical personnel to immediately treat those who are exposed.

• The number of fracking pits in N.C. near each fracking well could easily be hundreds of times the number of coal ash pits.

Toxic spills cause widespread contamination because of a very simple principle: fluids flow downhill into streams and then into supplies of drinking water, contaminating livestock and crops along the way – and finally us. Pits are banned in California and parts of Texas for exactly this reason.

According to DENR’s official website, its mission is “to protect North Carolina’s environment and natural resources.” But instead, DENR has built a track record of weakened regulations, lack of enforcement, cuts in staffing and denial of federal grants that would support our environment, all to be more “business friendly.” DENR should be renamed for its real function: Disasters in the Environment Now and Rising. The agency has become a serious threat to our environment, our health and our safety. As important as it is to clean up the pits, it is even more important to clean up DENR.

Charles Ritter, a retired aerospace design engineer, lives in Cary

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