The group charged with drafting the rules for implementing fracking in North Carolina has finished reviewing the 217,285 comments it received from the public this summer.

In a presentation to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy, Mining and Energy Commission chairman Dr. Vikram Rao reported the commissioners’ findings and outlined the actions they will take before sending the final draft of the rules to the state’s Rules Review Commission later this month. Rao said the number of comments received was “unprecedented” for North Carolina, and that the comments, after review by commissioners and DENR staff, were sorted into two “buckets:” ones the MEC had jurisdiction over, and ones they did not.

Commissioners were able to address comments related to wastewater treatment, transportation and disposal, open pit storage, setback rules and chemical disclosure.

Rao said the MEC received 3,500 comments regarding wastewater treatment, 2,400 comments mostly opposing open pit storage and more than 17,000 regarding “all manner” of setback rules, including proximity to water sources, public activity and dwellings and proximity to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in New Hill.

Rao said that 15,900 people agreed with the current setback distances in the draft rules, while 2,500 comments opposed them. (At a public hearing in Raleigh in August, many speakers criticized the setback distances for being inadequate). In response to the comments, the revised rules increased the setback distances to 1,500 feet from municipal water supply sources. “Other setbacks compare well with other states,” Rao said.

Rao said the commission received 15,880 rules supporting disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing practices (and 940 opposing), whether on the website FracFocus or through other means of disclosure. The Mining and Energy Commission did not make changes to these rules. “We are comfortable with the rules as written, including MEC statutory authority to approve trade secrets sought,” Rao said.

Regarding wastewater storage in open pits, Rao said many of the public comments seemed to be in response to the Duke Energy coal ash spill at the Dan River last winter. He said the coal ash spill is “only modestly related to what we’re doing,” adding that any wastewater would be stored in reservoirs with double liners and sensors to detect leaks, unlike the coal ash.

While many commissioners have said they prefer above-ground storage for wastewater, Rao said the MEC did strengthen the rules’ on-site monitoring, and allowed DENR staff to make unannounced visits to sites where fracking activities will take place.

Commissioners do not have the authority to address comments that ask for, explicitly or implicitly, an outright ban on fracking, Rao said. He added that it was too difficult to quantify how many of those kinds of comments commissioners received. Other areas commissioners could not address included comments that called for them to regulate air emissions (they received 7,800 such comments) and pooling related matters (8,200 comments).

“That is the law, and not out jurisdiction,” Rao said. However, the MEC will set up a committee to address air emissions next January, in response to a petition from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL).

Rep. Mike Hagar, the co-chair of the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy, asked Rao of the 200 thousand-plus comments, from more than 30,000 people, how many appeared to be from out of state; Rao said that most appeared to be from people from North Carolina.

“I consider and believe we will be considered to have some of the strongest and best rules and regulations regarding shale gas exploration,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, the legislative commission’s other co-chair.