Nearly a year ago, members of the newly minted General Assembly held a committee meeting about hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh. Room 643, where the meeting was held, is windowless, emblematic of the fraternity of lobbyists and lawmakers who shape the destinies of 9.3 million North Carolinians. From the outside, we can't see them. And most important, they can't—or don't—see us.
Several geologists, legislators and agency employees made presentations about fracking, which at the time in North Carolina seemed like someone else's problem. As for the people who had set their drinking water on fire, as documented in the film Gasland, well, that happens only in New York or Pennsylvania.
But Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, who was sitting in the audience that day, had been working on the issue for a year, and had long sensed a seismic shift in state policy. Energy companies had been sweet-talking landowners in Lee County into signing predatory mineral rights deals. Lobbyists had been getting to many of the lawmakers, who, seduced by the specious promises of jobs and economic development, had warmed to the environmentally hazardous practice.
The environmental, economic and social costs are great, Taylor says, while the benefits "are questionable."
"There is also an illusion of energy security," she adds, "because the mineral rights are often sold to foreign interests."
Since 1984, Clean Water for North Carolina (formerly the Clean Water Fund of N.C.) has built alliances with disadvantaged communities, which lack the power and influence of lobbyists and lawmakers. The organization has advocated with communities downstream from a paper products factory in Western North Carolina and fought the Mountain Air golf development in Yancey County that harmed nearby streams (residents taped together pieces of paper listing Mountain Air's 172 environmental violations and unfolded them at a public hearing).
"One place where Clean Water for North Carolina really stands out is in their work with communities of color and low-income people," says Bill Holman, director of state policy at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. He is also the former secretary of the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. "I really admire them for that work."
While Triangle residents may know CWFNC for its advocacy in protecting urban waterways, the group's primary work is on behalf of the 5 million North Carolinians who rely on groundwater for drinking, be it private wells or small private water systems, such as those that serve mobile home parks.
"[Groundwater] is an incredibly valuable resource," Holman says. "And there aren't a lot of people speaking up for it."
Private wells, which are largely unregulated, are especially vulnerable to contamination, for example, from underground storage tanks at gas stations and spills from dry cleaners. Residents often don't know the contamination exists.
These small systems are also targets for private companies to take over the water system, companies which then jack up water rates with no improvement in service. "North Carolina has allowed the proliferation of these small systems," Taylor says, "and left them subject to corporate privatization."
Key to CWFNC's effectiveness is its relationship with communities. "It's critical to empowerment that we don't advocate for a community but with a community," says Taylor, who is finishing her first term on the EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council.
One of CWFNC's success stories with a community is Shiloh near Morrisville, which had been contaminated by chemicals from a wood-treatment plant. Nathanette Mayo, now on the CWFNC board of directors, lives in that area. She says that Taylor helped Shiloh residents apply for a small assistance grant to bring in experts on the contamination and the EPA process. Together, the Shiloh Coalition (1989 Citizen Award winners) and CWFNC convinced the EPA to pay to attention to the community's desires. "It took 20 years, but it's finally cleaned up to a level that it can be used for industrial or commercial development," Mayo says.
Mayo joined the CWFNC board to "give back to organizations that selflessly come to a community and offer assistance when no one else is going to do it."
Taylor grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and earned degrees in biochemistry from University of Maryland and public health from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She worked in labs at the National Institutes of Health, and later Duke University. But what she really loved to do was farm, and she spent part of her time growing vegetables and raising goats. And as much as she enjoyed science, she chafed at the idea of spending her life in a lab, peering through a microscope. She wanted to be on the ground, to stay connected with people and the environment.
So in 1999, after several years of informally working with CWFNC, she joined the staff. Her role—part scientist, part advocate—synthesized her skills as a teacher, technical adviser and long-time activist. "I was anxious to be out in the world. It was the perfect opportunity to be out in the community to help them make environmental decisions for themselves."
Maribel Sierra, CWFNC's Water and Energy Justice coordinator, has a similar story. She graduated last May from UNC with a degree in biology and envisioned she would work in a lab. Instead she educates people, particularly in rural areas, about fracking. "It's a good fit," Sierra says. "It's meaningful work for me."
Sierra grew up in the small town of Biscoe in Montgomery County, which grounded her in the issues facing rural North Carolina—areas far afield from the power center of Raleigh. "You have to know how to build trust with these communities," she says. "I bring another level of understanding."
Fast forward one year from the legislative committee meeting. Fracking has been linked to earthquakes in Ohio and methane-contaminated drinking water in Wyoming. CWFNC has organized community meetings, including presentations by Pennsylvania landowners who, after signing leasing agreements, have witnessed the damage fracking can do.
"The shifting opinions are about more than environmental concerns," Taylor says. "It's about the loss of local control."
While CWFNC is outspoken in its advocacy, the group has found allies in the Legislature and federal and state agencies. "We encourage communities to presume every individual to be well-intentioned until proven otherwise," Taylor says. "That's the honorable thing to do."