The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission finalized its rules for fracking after receiving more than 217,000 public comments identifying multiple areas of concern. As early as January, lawamkers could approve the rules, which reflect a total disregard for public health and safety.
The MEC ignored public concerns about contamination of drinking water, open storage pits, toxic waste discharge, unsafe levels of radioactivity and air quality emissions. It ignored outrage about compulsory pooling and violation of private property rights.
MEC Commissioner Amy Pickle said the panel “incorporated as many of the concerns as we can” ... “within the time limit we have.” What time limit? Since when is a time limit more important than the health and safety of North Carolinians? Tens of thousands of us used the only means we had to voice our fears and concerns. We submitted over 217,000 comments only to see many of them ignored or dismissed. Consider:
Thousands of N.C. residents wanted setbacks from fracking operations to prevent their drinking water from being irreversibly contaminated with toxic chemicals; to safeguard the Shearon-Harris Nuclear Power Plant, built next to a fault line, from fracking-induced earthquakes; and to protect occupied buildings from fires and explosions of drilling operations. Instead, MEC rules provide only minimal setbacks from bodies of water and occupied buildings and no setback at all from the Shearon-Harris Nuclear Power Plant, the nation’s largest repository of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Bottom line: Since fracking can extend horizontally 2 miles underground, the rules allow fracking to be conducted under all of Jordan Lake (our reservoir) and the nuclear power plant.
Thousands of residents wanted a ban on open storage pits of toxic fracking fluids, citing the recent N.C. environmental disaster with coal ash storage pits and the fact that pits are unsafe for storing fracking fluids even temporarily. However, the MEC rules allow toxic fracking fluids to be stored in open pits as little as 1,500 feet from any surface water impoundment serving as a municipal drinking water supply.
• Waste management. Thousands of residents wanted to ban the surface discharge of treated wastewater, noting that North Carolina lacks water quality standards for most of the contaminants found in fracking fluids. Others wanted all waste to be tested for unsafe levels of radioactivity. In North Carolina there are no landfills capable of handling radioactive wastes. The MEC rules allow direct discharges of untreated waste to surface waters and do not address radioactive waste.
It is shocking how many safety recommendations were ignored. The rules do not address redundant blow-out protectors that would have prevented disasters like the BP gulf oil spill from happening in N.C. They do not address the adequate length of intermediate well casings and vertical distance separation between the shale and the aquifer to prevent water table contamination as recommended in Duke studies.
Regarding the final package of rules, Chairman Vikram Rao told his fellow commissioners, “If anybody’s totally happy with it, I’ll be surprised.” Happiness is not the point. This set of rules leaves millions of N.C. residents exposed and vulnerable to the dangers of fracking and leaves us wondering what happened to the MEC’s promise to craft the safest rules in the country.
Charles Ritter, a retired aerospace design engineer, lives in Cary. Marjorie Budd, a retired assistant commissioner for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, lives in Cary.