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N.C. returns EPA grant for fracking study

North Carolina’s environment agency has taken the unusual step of returning a federal grant to study streams and wetlands that could be harmed by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources had itself recommended last year that baseline water-quality data be collected where drilling might occur. The information would help document any problems linked to drilling.

But under new leadership appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, the department now says it doesn’t want the $222,595 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The department also returned a second grant of $359,710 for wetlands monitoring.

Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder said the fracking study will be done, but not now and not by the unit that applied for the grant. The Program Development Unit, which housed experts in aquatic ecosystems, is being disbanded in a reorganization of the division.

Reeder said other scientists within the division are equipped to do the work. It will start, he said, once the location and start of fracking, and pollutants of concern, become clear.

“We know we have to have this data,” Reeder said. “I don’t think we can move forward with fracturing, by statute, without this data.”

The part of North Carolina most likely to be tapped is in the Sanford Basin of Lee County, southwest of Raleigh.

The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which is charged with developing rules on fracking, has asked the department to explain the return of the EPA grant at its Friday meeting, Reeder said.

The Sierra Club questioned the state’s giving up the money, which was first reported by the N.C. Coastal Federation. Molly Diggins, the group’s N.C. director, said it makes no sense for the state to walk away from federal money after legislators cut $2 million from water programs this year.

“This is not a grant being imposed on North Carolina by a federal agency that doesn’t really know what we need,” she said. “This was a grant being sought by DENR to meet known challenges.”

Diggins added: “It raises the concern of whether this is part of a trend of backing away from science.”

Reeder said management efficiencies, including eliminating about 70 jobs, will save the division $4 million a year and cover the cost of a fracking study.

“What we are doing is running state government as efficiently as possible while still protecting our water quality and making drinking water safe for everybody in the state,” he said. “We haven’t done a single thing to diminish what we need to do.”

The second returned EPA grant, for long-term monitoring of wetlands in the Piedmont and coastal plain, was also to the Program Development Unit.

The unit is being dismantled as the former Division of Water Quality is absorbed by the Division of Water Resources, a move mandated by state legislators who complained that environmental regulations kill jobs. The environment department under the McCrory administration declares it will no longer be a “bureaucratic obstacle of resistance.”

The Program Development Unit was funded mostly by EPA grants totaling about $10 million over the past two decades. The money has been used to plug updated science into regulatory programs, train local regulators and monitor stream and wetland health.

Among its controversial roles was in confirming that so-called intermittent streams, which flow in winter but dry up in summer, harbor aquatic life. That resulted in requirements that damage to those streams had to be compensated.

“We were a leader in the Southeast, and really nationally, in doing that stuff,” said the unit’s former leader, John Dorney, who retired two years ago. “I’m afraid all that is going to be gone. How can you improve these programs without the benefit of science?”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @@bhender
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