Climate

North Carolina Wants To Frack In Small Town Already Struggling With Coal Ash

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Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said clean air and water are "moral issues."

A small town in North Carolina is fighting back after it was named one of the state’s first testing grounds for fracking.

The state is paying $236,500 for core sampling to asses potential natural gas reserves on publically owned land, including in the town of Walnut Cove, in the Dan River Basin. Actual fracking hasn’t yet started — and possibly won’t for several years — but residents are still worried by the test drilling.

Residents of Walnut Cove and surrounding areas gathered Wednesday to protest the drilling, which they say will further pollute their community. Walnut Cove is next to the state’s third-largest coal ash pond, and just 35 miles from the site of a massive coal ash spill in 2014.

“The community we love is in the middle of a David and Goliath battle with big industries that seem to care very little about the people in the area we call home,” Walnut Cove resident Tracy Brown Edwards said during Wednesday’s community meeting.

Edwards said she has suffered health problems her whole life from living near the coal ash pond. “It’s in our soil, and we know this,” she said. She thinks adding fracking to the mix will just make things worse — increasing the likelihood of earthquakes, since the town is located near a fault line, and putting the water supply at greater risk.

It isn’t clear yet whether or not fears of earthquakes from fracking in North Carolina are warranted — the state’s geologist has said that the practice is unlikely to cause quakes in the state — but fracking has induced earthquakes in other states. But water pollution is a major concern for the town, as fracking operations have been shown to put water supplies at risk.

Officials have tested for coal ash pollution in Walnut Cove’s water, but tests have come back inconclusive. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, and contains contaminants such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. It is stored in ponds, which are often located near lakes and waterways, and leaks or improper disposal can cause environmental and economic damage.

Though Walnut Cove’s tests were inconclusive, according to the Associated Press, 152 out of 163 water wells tested within 1,000 feet of Duke Energy coal ash ponds failed to meet state standards for groundwater — a 93 percent rate of contamination. A large number of the tests reportedly showed high levels of lead, vanadium, and hexavalent chromium, the latter of which is carcinogenic to humans.

“It’s a moral issue when people can’t drink their water… it’s a moral issue when people can’t breathe the air,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, who attended the community meeting. The national NAACP is investigating the situation in Walnut Cove after calls from local groups, Patterson said.

Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution from coal-powered plants, she said. Studies have repeatedly shown that low-income and minority communities face increased health risks from environmental hazards.

The event brought together people off all races and political affiliations. Ira Tilley, a self-declared Republican, said pollution was a bi-partisan issue.

“There are many conservatives and many Republicans in North Carolina and across this country who do not believe that what is going on is right, regard the fracking industry, regarding coal ash,” he said.

Under the leadership of Gov. Pat McCrory (R), a former Duke executive, and a Republican-controlled general assembly, the state allocated funds in 2012 for oil and gas exploration under the newly expanded Mining and Energy Commission’s management program for oil and gas. The program was tasked with investigating “the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”

Core sample drilling began Wednesday in the Cumberland-Marlboro Basin, in the southern part of the state, but it could take several more years for anything to come of the core samples.

“We’re a ways from hydraulic fracturing in these areas,” Jamie Kritzer, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told ThinkProgress.

“Money has been appropriated at this point just to extract the core samples. Money has not yet been appropriated to analyze those samples,” he pointed out. In addition, earlier this month a judge halted fracking permits, while the state Supreme Court weighs the legality of the formation of some relevant state panels.

Since North Carolina repealed a moratorium on fracking last summer, no one has applied for any fracking permits, Kritzer said.