State returns EPA grants to study fracking

RALEIGH — After returning almost $600,000 of federal grants to study environmental protection has sparked controversy, N.C. environmental officials are defending their decision.

Earlier this month, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources returned two grants to the Environmental Protection Agency that were awarded in June.

One grant allocated $222,595 to identify and collect baseline water testing data from wetlands and streams where hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — is most likely to occur.

Infobox
What is Fracking?

Fracking consists of drilling and injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock formations to release trapped natural gas.

The process is controversial: Opponents say the process could lead to environmental contamination, but advocates say it could spur job creation in the state.

On Friday, Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder defended the return of the grant before the Mining and Energy Commission, the group charged with state rules on fracking.

“I find when you get in these types of discussions when there’s a lot of accusations being made, it’s good to inject a little reality into the discussion now and again,” Reeder told the commission.

Reeder said one of the reasons the department returned the grant is because the funded studies would have covered a broader region than the proposed fracking area and would be completed too far in advance of drilling to be a useful baseline testing.

But George Matthis, a former DENR employee who spoke before the commission, said EPA grants are usually able to be amended and timelines can be extended.

“This whole business with the grant returns really got under my skin,” Matthis said in an interview. “Having managed grants for 15 years for this department, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Commission Chairman Jim Womack said though he did not know about the grant or its return, he supported Reeder’s decision.

“If it’s not going to add sufficient value, then don’t take the grant and don’t take the money,” he said.

The baseline surface water sampling that would have been funded by the studies will occur as needed, said Sarah Young, a division spokeswoman, in an email.

Jeannie Ambrose, a Chatham County resident at the meeting, said she questioned why the commission would deny any money that could help measure effects of fracking.

The other grant returned by the department awarded $359,710 to monitor wetlands in coastal and piedmont regions.

Both grants were administered through the N.C. Wetlands Program Development unit, which dissolved after the Division of Water Resources and the Division of Water Quality were consolidated.

Matthis said the restructuring of the department and the return of the grants reflect the pro-business direction the department is heading under Secretary John Skvarla, who was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory last December.

“They claim the environment can still be protected with reduced amounts of money, with reduced staffing — and yet, with my 33 years of experience with DENR, I find it hard to believe that you can shed staff and deal with less money and still do a good job at protecting not only the environment, but public health,” Matthis said.

state@dailytarheel.com

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