Friday, September 27, 2013

Which is it Mitch?

Less than two years have passed since North Carolina began studying fracking issues. When lawmakers first announced their desire to study statutory changes to allow fracking, they promised to wait and study the facts before deciding whether to allow fracking.  Experts from other states and from our Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) agreed that the state should study the groundwater quality in the area before fracking occurs.  This scientific study is needed so the new fracking rules will protect water.   This week news reports show that DENR is refusing EPA money to do the study before the rules are developed and signaling layoffs for water research.  Durham’s County Commissioners wisely protested DENR’s decision as the wrong course at their meeting on Monday.

On October 10, 2011, DENR conducted a public hearing in Sanford, North Carolina. 
Current DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie was at that meeting.  In 2011, Gillespie was still serving in the House of Representatives.  Rep. Gillespie was the legislative leader most responsible for crafting HB 242, the bill which called for fracking study.  Rep. Mike Stone accompanied him and explained to the audience that: “We need this information so we can develop either the best reason to frack with the best law in the nation, or not to frack at all.” 

Rep. Gillespie’s version of HB 242 directed DENR to answer a series of questions, including whether there was enough water in the area to do fracking.   DENR staff outlined all the steps needed to update North Carolina’s oil and gas laws from late 2011 into the summer of 2012.  Staff worked hard to pull this information together. From the very beginning DENR staff told the public that the State needed to sample groundwater in the shale areas to establish a baseline for groundwater quality.  This baseline would be used to help revise our oil and gas laws and to draft the regulations that would protect the State’s groundwater resources.  

Based on this information, DENR’s report recommended that the State conduct baseline groundwater testing in the regions with shale.  DENR also asked a neutral, non-profit task force called STRONGER to come and review the steps North Carolina must take to safely develop oil and gas.  STRONGER also recommended that the State conduct baseline groundwater testing in the regions with oil and gas potential. No one disputed this recommendation in the STRONGER process. 

Baseline testing protects the public health and the economy.  The baseline is what tells you whether the water is clean now and whether it is safe to drink.  It will also tell whether the groundwater is suitable to be used to supply the fracking operations with the water they need.  Water resource managers need this information to help insure we have enough clean drinking water.  DENR needs this information so it can develop rules to protect the drinking water now underground. 

Representative Gillespie had a reputation for targeting DENR, having jokingly painted a bullseye on his office window so that it lined up with DENR’s old office building.  About a year after the Sanford public hearing, Representative Gillespie resigned his seat in order to become an Assistant Secretary at DENR.  Representative Gillespie championed public involvement and sound science.  Less than six months into the new job, Assistant Secretary Gillespie had already changed his tune, supporting Halliburton's efforts to keep fracking chemicals secret because he did not want DENR to have the information.  Assistant Secretary Gillespie’s methods of handling fracking issues have moved from open public hearings to behind closed doors. 

DENR had asked the US EPA to help pay for the baseline testing and EPA agreed to pay for the costs.  Now DENR has turned that check down.  Assistant Secretary Gillespie appears to have forgotten what Representative Gillespie promised to the folks in Sanford a couple of years ago: a comprehensive study of all the issues. 

Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder is claiming responsibility for this decision.  Considering how tight DENR's budget has been the past two years, he could not have made a decision to turn down $600,000 without checking with his boss, Gillespie.  Reeder is just following orders. Gillespie is the one who promised to study all the issues

DENR’s mission is to protect the environment.  Forty years ago, voters in North Carolina approved a Constitutional Amendment which sets forth his agency’s mission.  That provision states in part: “It shall be the policy of this State to protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry.”   Assistant Secretary Gillespie needs to take his orders straight from our Constitution.  He should direct his staff to use all the resources available to protect our lands and waters.  Drawing a new bullseye on DENR cannot achieve this mission. 

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