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DENR says fracking stance unchanged despite 'news release'

Posted March 27, 2012 12:33 p.m. EDT
Updated March 27, 2012 3:27 p.m. EDT

— State environmental officials said Tuesday that a phony email was sent to news media proclaiming that regulators had backed off their belief that a controversial method of drilling for natural gas could be done safely in North Carolina.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a draft report two weeks ago that outlined the need for regulations before hydraulic fracturing could occur in North Carolina. Once rules were in place, however, drilling wouldn't pose major risks, the report said.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is the process of drilling horizontally into underground deposits of shale and then pumping a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into a well to break apart the rock and release natural gas.

Opponents of the process say it would damage water resources and contaminate the environment, while supporters say it would provide an economic boon to central North Carolina.

DENR held a public hearing last week in Sanford that drew scores of people on each side of the debate. Another public hearing is set for 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at East Chapel Hill High School, and a third hearing will be held next Monday at Fearrington Village in Chatham County.

Agency spokeswoman Diana Kees said officials haven't determined who sent the fake email, which was purported to be from DENR Secretary Dee Freeman, although it never referred to him by name. The "news release" didn't include any contact information, and no one owns the askncdenr.org domain name used to send the email.

“Due to miscommunications among staff during a period of increased workloads, DENR released a conclusion that was premature and not adequately supported by available scientific evidence,” the release quotes the DENR secretary as saying. “We wish to apologize for this oversight and remind the public that this report is only a draft.”

The bogus news release said state regulators still had to study U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research on groundwater in Pennsylvania, where fracking is growing rapidly, before taking any position.

"At this point DENR does not have enough information to conclude whether hydraulic fracturing can be done safely in North Carolina,” the release quotes the DENR secretary as saying. "We have developed recommendations for a hypothetical regulatory framework. However, DENR is not confident at this time that any regulatory framework would be strong enough to ensure the safety of hydraulic fracturing.”

Kees said simply that DENR "stands behind its recent report."

A final report is due to lawmakers in May.