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Sanford no longer backing fracking

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Where once there was hope, now there is anger.

In Sanford, where the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission held a public hearing on a draft of the state's fracking regulations, opponents of the controversial drilling practice are waving small red flags, their ire given a menacing edge by protesters' thumping drums and whistles outside the Wicker Civic Center.

"Fracking=Loss of property values, property rights," read one sign. Another, posted in the bed of a pick-up truck, proclaimed "Jesus would not frack."

That's quite a change from the mood in March 2012, when Sanford residents packed the same building with nervous energy. An industrial town in Lee County, Sanford had grappled with double-digit unemployment for years. Fracking along the presumably shale-rich Deep River was to be a godsend. "We need jobs," read one banner.

But since then, support has withered along with declining job estimates and mounting evidence of water contamination and earthquakes in states where drilling is already legal. In Lee County, landowners are bristling over compulsory pooling, that could force unwilling landowners to allow drilling on their property. Supporters of compulsory pooling, including many MEC members, say it's necessary to attract drillers.

Statewide polls have consistently indicated public opposition to drilling, although the animosity seems increasingly bitter in fracking hubs like Sanford. A July poll by the left-leaning N.C. Environmental Partnership reported 67 percent of the residents of the state's House District 51, which includes the most likely drilling spots in Sanford, disapprove of fracking.

There may be political ramifications, too. State Rep. Mike Stone is a Sanford Republican from District 51 who helped spearhead the fracking charge in the General Assembly. Although he is an incumbent in a conservative area, Stone is trailing a relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Harnett County farmer and drilling opponent Brad Salmon, according to at least one internal strategy poll cited by Politics N.C.

"[People] don't want the government taking their land," said Thomas Mills, the political analyst who founded Politics N.C. "And they certainly don't want corporate America taking their land."

State legislators voted to lift North Carolina's fracking moratorium in spring, as members of the appointed MEC readied their draft regulations. The commission is expected to finalize its rules this fall, and the state could begin permitting in early 2015.

Friday's meeting almost didn't happen. At 2:41 a.m. Friday, MEC Chairman Jim Womack sent an angry email to his commission colleagues, Sanford police and the Lee County Sheriff's Office, threatening to cancel the meeting because local law enforcement declined to provide security at the event.

In the email, Womack said he expected an unruly audience of about 500 to 700 residents, similar to the angry crowd that attended another hearing in Raleigh last week. But only 200 to 300 people attended Friday's hearing in Sanford, most of them opponents.

"We here are parents and grandparents and we are concerned about the water," said Gail Gray, a resident of the small neighboring town of Broadway.

"We reject the notion that so-called trade secrets are more important than the health of our citizens," said Richard Hayes, a former Lee County commissioner, about the lack of chemical disclosure requirements. "We are going to be breathing these trade secrets."

Many who spoke Friday mentioned Duke Energy's coal ash spill in February, worrying that the combination of polluting coal ash pits and drilling pads across the state would imperil the state's water supply.

Susan Alexander, also of Sanford, said drilling will weaken local property rights and devalue land. "But our comments do not matter," Alexander said to the commission. "Because you already have your minds made up."

A few dozen fracking supporters were scattered in the crowd Friday, many still expressing optimism that drilling would bring better times for Lee County.

Lavelle Austin, wearing a light blue shirt that read "Shale Yes," crooked a finger at the fracking protesters as she spoke: "You're just a little bit afraid of something new."

Mildred Smith of Sanford called it a blessing that in "North Carolina, right here at home, we have gas."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ever-changing moods."

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