If not for the crumpled Motley Crue ticket, the long-abandoned ashes of a campfire and an urgent command—"Suck dick," carved deep into a stone—this mossy knob by Chatham County's Haw River would feel like a secret.
The roar of rushing water swallows the hum of traffic on U.S. 15-501. If a stench can be pleasant, it can be found here among the algae blooms on the water's surface. The muddy Haw yawns to the northwest, coiling through hills of undulating green.
This is what most people think of when they think of Chatham County, the Triangle's rural neighbor to the south. It's a postcard, as beautiful as it is static. But change is coming to Chatham County, like it or not.
In the next 30 years, a massive, 7,200-acre development should increase the population 10-fold. Duke Energy has already begun dumping potentially toxic coal ash in an abandoned brick mine southeast of the county seat of Pittsboro. And natural gas drilling—better known as "fracking," the controversial method drillers use to extract gas from ground—has seemed inevitable ever since the General Assembly cleared the way in 2014 with the Energy Modernization Act.
Chatham lies in the heart of the state's most lucrative natural gas play, a hilly swath stretching from Granville County through Durham and into Chatham and suburban Lee County. Lee and Chatham figure to be the most profitable, according to geologists.
Drilling may be inevitable, but not for the next two years at least, says Jim Crawford, chairman of the Chatham Board of Commissioners. Three weeks ago, Crawford's board unanimously approved a sweeping two-year moratorium on fracking, citing widespread concerns about water consumption, pollution and a pending countywide land-use plan.
Chatham is the second county, behind Anson, to issue a temporary halt on drilling in North Carolina. It probably won't be the last. Lee County commissioners will consider a two-year ban on drilling on Sept. 21, says county manager John Crumpton.
Counseled by anti-fracking nonprofits like Clean Water for N.C., Chatham and Lee are seeking to exploit a loophole in state law. The Energy Modernization Act forbids local governments from imposing outright bans on drilling, but says nothing of temporary moratoriums. And so it's conceivable that counties, provided they show good reason in court, could "temporarily" ban drilling in perpetuity.
This is perhaps the last stand for anti-drilling counties, which the Legislature has stripped of most powers to regulate an industry riddled with reports of water contamination and increased seismic activity in other states.
"The hazards are real," says Crawford. "This isn't the yeti. This isn't the sasquatch. It's actually happening."
For Lee and Chatham, there's much at stake. Duke Energy's coal-ash dumps already threaten the groundwater supply. Fracking may do the same.
In spots in both counties, the targeted pockets of natural gas are encased less than a half-mile away from drinking water. And state lawmakers have allowed drilling companies to cloak the ingredients contained in fracking chemicals. With no public disclosure, environmentalists say, inorganic cocktails could mean hidden risks for groundwater.
Drilling is a notorious water-guzzler, too. Each well uses as many as 4 million gallons every time it is fracked, about the amount consumed by 11,000 Americans daily. Chatham, a regional water supplier, needs its water.
Crawford knows the risks of fracking. A native of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, his family's soybean farm abuts a drill pad. Drilling brought jobs, but local water faucets now spew flammable effluent, he says. The Susquehanna River—where gas was seen bubbling to the surface in 2010, a likely side effect of drilling—snakes into the county from the west. Local roads are broken and rutted, thanks to an interminable stream of heavy trucks supplying the drill sites.
In North Carolina, local governments would pay for these impacts, warns Crawford. "The state is blind to any of the actual nuts and bolts of fracking," he says. "All they see is a glittering picture."