Tears, smiles and high-fives filled the Stokes County courtroom Monday night as fracking opponents celebrated a victory in their multi-year battle to keep the practice out of Stokes County.
The Stokes County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed to pass a three-year moratorium on fracking in the county, effective immediately. Commissioner James Booth was not present at the meeting but had earlier expressed his support for the move.
The decision came after months of public comment during which opponents demanded, and begged, the board pass a moratorium and begin work on ordinances that would limit the impact of fracking in the county.
Fracking, a colloquialism for hydraulic fracking, is a method of obtaining natural gas by fracturing the bedrock though the forced injection of water, sand, and a variety of chemicals.
While opponents of the practice have long been vocal in Stokes County, public outcry increased dramatically this summer after a core sample drilled in Walnut Cove showed that shale layers in the county showed potential for natural gas production. The Walnut Cove core sample also showed that the shale formation is located at depths between 98 feet and 423.7 feet, well with in the area that many water wells are drilled in the county.
Under the moratorium passed Monday, it would be unlawful for anyone to engage in hydraulic fracturing or oil and gas development for a three year time period with violators of the ordinance facing a $500 per day fine.
The moratorium will cover all areas of the county except for locations included in incorporated municipalities and their ETJ zones, and is intended to provide the board time to research and study the impact of fracking; determine the adequacy of existing state and federal laws; study the impact of potential fracking on county roads, infrastructure, natural resources and health and safety of residents; and develop standards and conditions to be implemented in the county zoning ordinance to address impacts not adequately addressed by state and federal regulations.
Fracking opponents once again packed the courthouse on Monday, but this time their message was one of thanks, with encouragement to not stop fighting.
“This board has done its due diligence on fracking,” said Mary Kerley, the leader of No Fracking In Stokes County. “By passing this moratorium this board is protecting our economic drivers and laying the groundwork for future ordinances.”
David Harriston, a Walnut Cove resident who has spoken at length against fracking, told the board he was there for a different reason on Monday.
“I am here to thank you,” he said. “I am here to thank you for taking the first steps to protecting my mother’s home. I am here to thank you for renewing my faith that the voices of Stokes County citizens are being heard.”
“All of you took steps over three years ago to protect Stokes County with a resolution against fracking,” agreed Pattie Dunlap. “Now you have agreed to consider a moratorium on fracking. This is a bold step and will allow you put in ordinances, zoning and restrictions in place with some teeth in them to protect us. I am proud of these Republican commissioners and our state Representative Bryan Holloway. They have followed through on every promise they have ever made to us on fracking.”
Therese Vick with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League told the board they were making the right decision at the right time.
“Communities have to protect themselves,” she said. “DENR does not have the political will or the capacity to enforce the law.”
But other speakers, while grateful for the move by the board to create a moratorium, warned that the fight was not yet over.
“You have listened and taken action,” said Rev. Gregory Harriston. “The fight is not over, but this is a good step toward winning the battle.”
Pinnacle resident Jim Mitchell said the state laws on fracking needed to be changed.
“Our legislature can change these laws,” he said. “If we can get the right pull in Raleigh to make changes in our state law then fracking in North Carolina will not exist.”
“Our God given natural resources are all we have,” agreed Rockingham County resident Ira Tilley. “What better way to send a signal to Raleigh than right here, tonight in Stokes County?”
One speaker asked for the county to ban fracking in the county.
“The state law clearly states that counties cannot do that,” Commissioner Leon Inman replied before voting for the moratorium. “We are taking the most proactive step we can, but I would encourage everyone to stay involved in this process, especially at the state level.”
The moratorium cites many concerns raised by local residents in recent meetings over the possible impact potential fracking could have in the county.
— Stokes County is a small and rural county which is primarily dependent on agriculture, agribusiness, tourism and residential development.
— Stokes County’s unique geography and minimal separation between shale formations and groundwater supplies puts well water users disproportionately at risk of groundwater supply contamination.
— Fracking could involve hazardous materials and toxic waste the county is not equipped to deal with.
— The county’s roads are not equipped to handle increased truck traffic.
— State regulations do not sufficiently protect the citizens or the environment of Stokes County from the impacts of fracking.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.