Major news for frack-followers: A Duke University study published this week finds homeowners living near fracking wells may be at an elevated risk of drinking water contamination.
The study, performed by researchers at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, analyzed 141 drinking water samples from water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania, prime fracking country.
According to the study, methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of shale gas operations. Propane was found in 10 samples, all of them within a kilometer of fracking sites.
Robert Jackson, a study co-author and Nicholas School professor, suggested in a school statement that "poor well construction" may be to blame for the contamination.
“Distance to gas wells was, by far, the most significant factor influencing gases in the drinking water we sampled,” Jackson said.
While a previous Nicholas School study has found methane contamination near fracking wells, the new study is the first to link drilling with ethane and propane contamination, according to the statement.
All three gases are considered to be flammable with a risk of explosions. Methane is generally thought to be non-toxic, although propane and ethane can pose health risks, such as asphyxiation, in high concentrations.
The study is released as North Carolina lawmakers continue to debate the contents of Senate Bill 76, a bill that may ultimately authorize the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to begin issuing fracking permits in March 2015.
As INDY Week reported earlier, we researched the Civitas Institute staff via its website this morning. And then poof! the staff list disappeared except for President Francis X. De Luca.
Well, nothing really ever goes away on the Interwebs, so thanks to the wayback machine we found the Civitas staff list before the scrubbing.
Here it is, just so you know we weren't imagining it.
The outrage is boiling over about the ultra-conservative Civitas Institute, which this week published personal, albeit publicly available, information about the protesters arrested at Moral Monday demonstrations: mug shots, party affiliations, cities of residence and, taking a page from the white supremacist intimidation playbook, their employers.
Well, turnabout is fair play: Here is a list of people on staff and on the board of the Civitas Institute and its sister organization, Civitas Action. civitas_whos_who.pdf
Coincidentally, when we were building this database this morning, all the names were listed on the Civitas Institute website. Now, only Francis X. De Luca, Civitas Institute president, is listed.
Civitas Institute is a conservative think tank funded largely by the Pope Foundation, which has given it more than $8 million since its founding in 2005—about 97 percent of its income. It is a tax-exempt nonprofit. Art Pope sat on the institute’s board of directors until Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him as state deputy budget director.
Civitas Action shares an office and many of the same staff. However, CA is different from the institute: It's a 501c (4), a nonprofit that can legally lobby; these groups are not required to disclose their donors.
CA has a link on its website "Carolina Transparency," which is a guide to elected officials. However, CA is not subjecting itself to the same level of transparency; none of its staffers or board member is listed. We found them through the group's 990 tax forms.
The sources for this material include the organizations' respective websites, LinkedIn, Lexis-Nexis, the N.C. Board of Elections, the Internal Revenue Service, Guidestar.org and employer websites. In some cases, we could not verify exact ages, so we gave a range.
See more about the Pope empire from this 2011 graphic that appeared in INDY Week. Pope has since stepped down from several of his boards because of his position in state government.
A top official at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced he is leaving his post effective today.
Chuck Wakild, the director of the Division of Water Quality, told his staff, "I will be leaving my job as director effective today and will be retiring from state service at the end of August," according to an email obtained by INDY Week.
He thanked his staff and closed the email by writing, "Change brings opportunities and I encourage you to look for them as we all move ahead."
Wakild (WAY-killed) has been director of DWQ since 2012. He has held many leadership posts at the agency for the past 20 years. He reported directly to Assistant Secretary of the Environment Mitch Gillespie.
DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said his retirement had been planned for some time. "We're glad he stuck around for the first six months of the new administration" to help with the transition, Elliot said.
Wakild's departure comes at a pivotal time for DWQ. Senate Bill 76, known as the fracking bill, passed the House environment committee version last week. While it strips language from the Senate version that allowed for the injection of fracking waste underground, fracking has caused numerous water quality issues in other states where the controversial drilling practice is common.
If SB 76 becomes law, permitting could occur in North Carolina as early as March 2015.
Sen. E.S. "Buck" Newton, a Republican from Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties who co-sponsored the bill, said the drilling has the potential to create thousands of jobs and billions in revenues (for more on those expectations, see here).
"Do we want to sit around and twiddle our thumbs for another 15 to 20 years and do nothing when other states have been doing it for decades safely?" Newton said.
The practice is seen as an economic driver by proponents, but critics point to numerous reports of environmental contamination associated with drilling across the country.
The original Senate legislation authorized the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to issue fracking permits starting March 1, 2015, although the House version approved Thursday morning requires another vote from the N.C. General Assembly for the permits to become valid.
The House version also strips language allowing for the injection of fracking waste underground and would retain a state registry of landmen. As reported recently in INDY Week, the Senate bill's sponsors received significant campaign contributions from energy interests.
Committee Democrats questioned whether the state would be allowing permits to be issued before fracking regulations are finalized. Newton, however, called the March 2015 deadline "more than adequate time" to finish the rule-making process, which is ongoing in the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. The commission has an October 2014 deadline for completing its work.
During Thursday's meeting, DENR Secretary John Skvarla indicated his support for the controversial legislation.
"The bill is a giant step forward to all of us who demand environmental protection and certainty to the people willing to spend tens of millions of dollars in the hydraulic fracturing process," Skvarla said.
Not so, according to environmental opponents.
"It is much better than the Senate version," Environment N.C. Director Elizabeth Ouzts told INDY Week Wednesday. "But it is still bad for water quality, and it breaks the promise that the legislature made last year that they would allow the Mining and Energy Commission to develop rules before setting a date for permits to be issued."
As expected, fast-track fracking legislation, Senate Bill 76, passed the House Commerce and Job Development Committee Wednesday morning, although with several notable departures from the version passed by Senate leaders in February.
Those differences, according to fracking opponent and Environment N.C. Director Elizabeth Ouzts, include stripping the legislation of language allowing the injection of fracking waste underground. The House version also removes a provision booting environmental and geological experts from the regulatory Mining and Energy Commission, the panel tasked with preparing the state's regulatory structure for drilling.
The bill's key point—authorizing the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to issue fracking permits in March 2015—remains, although with the addendum that permits will require another legislative vote for them to take effect, Ouzts said.
"It is much better than the Senate version," Ouzts said. "But it is still bad for water quality, and it breaks the promise that the legislature made last year that they would allow the Mining and Energy Commission to develop rules before setting a date for permits to be issued."
Senate Bill 76 now heads for the House Environment Committee. The legislation is sponsored by Senate Republicans Buck Newton, Bob Rucho and Andrew Brock. All three senators received substantial campaign contributions from energy companies in recent years.
This post was updated at 11:09 a.m. with post-vote remarks by Eugene Brown.
The Durham City Council would not be pawns.
Council voted 4-3 Monday night against the annexation of 751 South, the controversial project planned for the Jordan Lake watershed. By doing so, the council also refused to extend water and sewer service to the 253-acre development that under recent negotiations, bundled the already-built Colvard Farms in southern Durham County into the deal.
Voting no were Councilors Eugene Brown, Diane Catotti, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel.
Mayor Bill Bell, Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden and Councilman Howard Clement voted yes.
The vote was the latest bold move in a four-year game of chess between the City of Durham, concerned citizens and Southern Durham Development over 751, which calls for 1,300 homes and 600,000-square feet of commercial space in an environmentally sensitive area near the Durham-Chatham county line.
SDD has used not only legitimate negotiations but also legal sleights of hand, political pressure and large campaign contributions—it formed Durham’s first Super PAC—to compel city and county leaders to approve the project.
“I cannot ignore the maneuvers that have gotten us to this point,” Catotti said shortly before voting no. “It’s the poster child for poor planning: backdoor schemes and intimidation, the disregard of sound science and the subversion of citizens’ rights to protest petition.”
Neither the developer Alex Mitchell nor SDD attorney Cal Cunningham attended Monday's Council meeting, which is highly unusual considering the importance of the vote.
In 2012, Durham County Commissioners voted to extend sewer service to the development, a controversial move with long-ranging ramifications.
“We were dealt the cards we have,” Mayor Bell said.
Mayor Bell negotiated additional concessions from SDD, including a widening of part of N.C. 751. However, the project, larger than the original, still included 81 acres of impervious surface—pavement—that could result in pollution running into the Jordan Lake watershed.
"Let's don't sell Durham's soul for a road widening," Schewel said.
By a 4-3 vote, Durham City Council voted against annexing 751 South and extending water and sewer service to the controversial proposed development.
Yes: Mayor Bill Bell, Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden and Councilman Howard Clement
No: Councilmen Don Moffitt, Steve Schewel and Eugene Brown and Councilwoman Diane Catotti.
Check back tomorrow for more details and in the June 5 edition of INDY Week.
"Moral Monday" protests, which began more than a month ago with 17 arrests, are starting to get real.
A crowd of roughly 1,500 people, almost three times larger than any previous protest, gathered on Halifax Mall behind the Legislative Building Monday. Another 151 were then arrested after entering the Legislative Building and refusing to disperse.
Monday's wave of protests brings the arrest total to 304.
The protests have been organized by a coalition of progressive organizations, which is headed up by the state branch of the NAACP, in response to a dizzying array of legislation, from cutting Medicaid and unemployment benefits to funneling public money into private schools, raising taxes on the poor and lower middle-class, and limiting early voting.
Allen Wellons, a former state senator (D-Johnston), was among those that chose to be arrested. "I just couldn't sit back and watch this happen anymore," said Wellons as he walked into the Legislative Building hand in hand with a line of others who planned to participate in civil disobedience. "They [Republican leaders] are taking chances with the future of our children, the elderly, poor people and just the average citizen."
Sen. Thom Goolsby (R- New Hanover) was one of just a handful of legislators that watched demonstrators as they blocked the Senate chambers. He echoed sentiments previously expressed by other conservative legislators, applauding citizens who are willing to commit civil disobedience, but said he's not reconsidering the reforms currently underway. "We were elected based on a set of promises and we will continue to carry them out."
The majority of protesters were white, but the age range was more diverse than in previous weeks. A group of 10 teachers from Hillside High School in Durham, all in their 20s, were among the crowd. Jessie Odom, 25, said she had been educated about proposed changes in public education by her fellow teachers in previous weeks and decided to join the growing movement.
"When I talk to my friends who teach at other schools, I don't get the sense that they know about everything that's happening," said Odom. "But that's why we're out here."
"150 people getting arrested and thousands protesting, as opposed to business as usual at the legislature, throws a spotlight on what's happening," said Katie Barnhill, another Hillside teacher. "This might bring someone to think about what's happening in a way they hadn't before."
"They are starting to wake up a sleeping giant," said Yevonne Brannon, a longtime Wake County organizer. "It's called the middle class."
Video footage from the June 3 Moral Monday protest by Fred Westbrook of C'Access Inc.