Forty years ago, when North Carolina banned using deep wells to permanently dump industrial waste, some thought the issue had been decided for good. Now state lawmakers who want to turn North Carolina into the nations next fracking hotspot are reopening the case for injecting brines and toxins deep underground.
This time, the proposal is shifting the fracking debate from the center of the state, where the energy exploration and economic benefits would occur, to tourism-dependent coastal communities where the disposal wells would have to be drilled.
Thats where it would be no doubt about it, said Rep. Rick Catlin, a Republican from Wilmington who is a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer. Its going to be very controversial.
Fracking removes natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations by pumping in water and chemicals to smash the rock a process that creates tons of waste.
The proposals impact on the coast is not widely known because the bill in the state legislature doesnt specify where the fracking waste would be injected. Many lawmakers assume the injection wells, which can accept waste for years from multiple fracking operations, would be located near the fracking sites.
Now its becoming clear that coastal residents and businesses could also be affected if fracking gets under way several hundred miles inland. The legislation, which is a signal to the oil-and-gas industry that North Carolina is eager to host shale gas exploration activities, would also lift the states fracking moratorium in March 2015.
The bill has sailed through the state Senate and is now before the House, where it is likely to be assigned to the Public Utilities Committee. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Mike Hager, said the implications of lifting the waste disposal ban are so far-reaching they raise serious doubts and will require further study.
What does it do to the community that doesnt get the revenue from the natural gas production? asked Hager, a Republican from western Burke and Rutherford counties. We will have to look at how these communities are compensated.
Bill sponsor Sen. E.S. Buck Newton said the concerns may be premature. He said such injections are an accepted method of disposal and have been successfully done hundreds of thousands of times in the United States.
I really dont see it as an issue, said Newton, a Republican representing Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties. Were talking about putting water into a deep area that already has that kind of water.
All my information is that the best way to deal with these runs that come up is to reinject it, he said. If it went from County A to County B, Im not sure why County B would have a major objection to that.
Other options complicated
Deep injection into wells is the industrys preferred method of getting rid of fracking waste and is approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The other options are much more expensive and logistically complicated. They include trucking the fluids to municipal water treatment plants, which are increasingly rejecting fracking residues, or using open-air evaporation in large impoundments.
Injection wells are not immune from spills and accidents, but they may be best known for their linkage to earth tremors where fluid is stored and pressurized underground near faults. The concerns in this state include aquifer damage below, as well as potential property damage on the surface.