County protests state rejection of water-test grant

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:03 PM

County Commissioners voted 4-0 Monday to write Gov. Pat McCrory a letter protesting a decision by state environmental regulators to turn down a federal grant that would have paid for water-quality monitoring.

The monitoring of surface water – what’s in the state’s lakes, rivers and streams – was to have provided baseline data that officials could use in gauging whether future natural-gas drilling was causing water pollution.

County officials decided to weigh in at the behest of County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who noted the issue’s tie to the controversy over the use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in new gas wells.

Passing up a chance to do the monitoring “puts us in a situation where we won’t necessarily know as well as we should what the impact of fracking will be on surface water,” she said.

Reckhow was reacting to reports by the N.C. Coastal Federation and other private environmental-advocacy groups that are taking issue with the state’s decision.

The grant, for $222,595, was from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was to have gone to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

DENR applied for the grant and, in a 2012 white paper, had listed pre-drilling checks of water quality as one of the guarantors that fracking “can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.”

But now DENR Division of Water Resources chief Tom Reeder says the grant and others turned down by the agency “are not needed for the division to meet our core mission.”

Reeder told the Coastal Federation that DENR is “slimming down” and intends to “meet [its] mandates under state and federal law.”

He added that state officials still intend to require testing of groundwater in advance of drilling in the areas where it’s to occur.

Durham Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said Monday that the chairman of the state’s mining and energy board, Jim Womack, has offered similar assurances to a group she’s part of, organized by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

The news surfaced this month shortly after DENR and the mining board released a new report on the local-government impacts of fracking that said the state shouldn’t allow cities and counties to use zoning rules to prohibit drilling operations in their borders.

An analogy “may be drawn” between the rules for fracking and those for cellphone antennas, it said, noting that local governments are similarly barred from prohibiting cell service.

The same report addressed water-quality sampling and noted that the state already requires the monitoring of lakes, rivers and streams communities use as a source of drinking water.

It added that the state will eventually require oil and gas companies to “sample and test private drinking water wells in the vicinity of operations.”

Asked by Jacobs whether she thought the state would follow through on such assurances, Reckhow hinted at a doubt.

“I would hope and expect so,” she said. “Who knows?”