Fracking report for NC mining and energy commission recommends unannounced state inspections

Members of a state commission who oversaw public hearings on fracking are recommending that rules be revised to allow unannounced inspections of hydraulic fracturing operations, according to a report released Wednesday.

Other recommendations ranged from editing definitions of certain terms to specifying a setback to protect municipal water supplies.

The report was prepared by three members of the state Mining and Energy Commission for the panel's 14 members to consider at meetings starting Thursday. The three members considered nearly 220,000 public comments on the more than 100 draft rules for hydraulic fracturing.

After the commission votes on whether to change any rules, the Legislature will have the final say during its session starting in January.

The report recommends removing language in one rule about giving notice of inspections to well site operators.

"The hearing officers agree that inspections are a critical component of a regulatory program and that unannounced inspections must be allowed," the report states.

The report also noted that it received 2,500 comments disagreeing with rules on various setback distances between hydraulic fracturing operations and homes, roads and bodies of water. The report said the one change they were recommending was a new setback distance for municipal water supplies, which weren't specifically addressed in a previous version of the rule.

The change would require "a minimum setback of 1,500 feet downgrade from each oil or gas well, tank, tank battery, pit, or production facility to the edge of any surface water impoundment that serves as a municipal drinking water supply."

The report also noted many comments pertained to things over which the commission had no authority because of how state law is written.

For example, the commission can't require companies to disclose all fracking chemicals, and the report said changing the confidential information provisions would require action from the Legislature.

A phone message seeking comment Wednesday from commission chairman Vikram Rao wasn't immediately returned.

Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law over the summer clearing the way for permits to be issued as soon as next spring for hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals to break apart underground rocks so oil and gas can escape.

The issue has sparked strong responses by both sides. Four public meetings in August and September were marked by chanting and singing by people who fear toxic chemicals could escape the wells. Fracking proponents say it can be done safely and that affordable natural gas helps manufacturers create more jobs.

Scientists believe pockets of natural gas exist in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties southwest of Raleigh, but there are disputes about how much is there.