Lee County Residents Ponder Fracking

Jul 17, 2012

Lee County is one of a handful of central North Carolina areas known to have natural gas reserves. Ever since state legislators passed a law to allow the horizontal drilling method of extracting natural gas known as fracking, county residents have been wondering when and if they’ll see gas wells sprouting up in their backyards. People in the community are divided over what fracking could mean for them.

Jessica Jones: Mary Ferrell was born and raised in Lee County, where she says her family enjoys all the benefits of living in the country- there’s fresh air, peace and quiet, and home-grown vegetables from her garden just outside the door. Today Ferrell’s working her way through a plastic bag of green beans, snapping them into two-inch segments.

Mary Ferrell: I actually saute them with a little bit of olive oil, and garlic, and then I also will freeze what I have and then also eat fresh.

Ferrell runs a vitamin store on a country road outside Sanford. She says she’s grown used to natural gas sales reps knocking on her door, asking to lease her land. And she says there’s been a steady stream of letters too.

Ferrell: I’d say about a year ago we’re getting ‘em, then they kind of stopped for a while, now in the last month or two we’ve noticed that we’re getting a lot more.

Ferrell says she’s expecting that to continue. The fracking law creates a special commission to oversee the process of natural gas exploration. Lawmakers will have to vote again to allow drilling to begin. But in order for that to happen, enough landowners will have to lease their property to natural gas companies- and companies need to have a certain amount of contiguous land to install a circuit of wells. Ferrell isn’t sure yet whether her family will lease their property.

Ferrell: At this time we’re watching and kind of looking, waiting and seeing what all is going to happen. And trying to find out what the truth is, how much damage can be done. We’re just kind of gathering information.

So are other residents, like Laura Johnson. She lives a few miles away down a gravel road that runs past a pond with hundreds of lily pads.

Laura Johnson: This is where we spend a lot of time. Just cause it’s so nice I bring the dogs down here every day and go swimming and we go fishing…

Like many other residents here, Johnson is concerned that fracking might harm the water supply. It pumps water mixed with chemicals into wells to break up the rock that traps pockets of natural gas. But those chemicals can get into the water table. An EPA study released last December linked fracking to contaminated drinking water in a town in Wyoming.

Johnson: My biggest worry is how am I going to know when my water is contaminated if it gets that way. There’s been talk about trucking in water, if your well gets contaminated, that the companies will pay to bring in water, but the thing is how long would I be drinking that before I know that it’s contaminated.

Johnson has already tested her well so she has a baseline record in case something bad happens. She refuses to lease the mineral rights to her 40 acre property, though some of her neighbors already have. A state utility law could compel her to lease her land too, if wells are built on her neighbors’ property nearby. But some of her neighbors aren’t so worried.

Frank Del Palazzo: If I hear one more person say it’s gonna kill the water it’s like good gracious, please.

Frank Del Palazzo is a retirement planner who’s also running for county commissioner. He thinks the chances of fracking causing environmental problems are miniscule. What’s more worrisome, he says, is Lee County’s unemployment rate that hovers around 11 percent. Del Palazzo says the jobs fracking could bring would be good for the area.

Del Palazzo: There are people who’ve been out of work for two years. And no we don’t wanna rush to it, but by the same token, we don’t wanna unnecessarily delay what could be a blessing for a lot of people.

Del Palazzo thinks too many young people have to leave Lee County in order to find work. He says he’s not opposed to leasing his mineral rights, but as a financial planner, he says the price many companies are paying per acre is far too low right now. In Pennsylvania, some leases have gone for as much as 500 dollars per acre. But some families here have already leased their property for only a few dollars an acre. Betty Paschal is among them. She and her husband own about a hundred acres of farm and forest land.

Betty Paschal: We may never see anything from it if they do start drilling. But our children, grandchildren, they might, if it does come about that drilling starts, it might be good for them.

Paschal says she likes the idea of leaving a legacy for her children and grandchildren. But she still worries about the changes fracking could bring to Lee County.

Paschal: We’re just poor people, we don’t have a lot. And a lot of people thinks oh boy we can get rich off of this. People might be thinking not about the danger side of it, but what they’re going to get out of it.

Paschal says she’s heard stories of property owners in Pennsylvania who were left with a big mess to clean up after gas companies abandoned unproductive wells. She says she doesn’t want any problems on her property that she can’t afford to fix.