Unexplained drilling alarms residents of Yadkin County

The recent drill site is north of US Highway 421 and just west of US Highway 21 in western Yadkin County.

In the past six months, mysterious drilling has been carried out on a large expanse of land north of Hamptonville, Yadkin County, and the president of the company behind the project refuses to disclose what he’s looking for. and why.

Dozens of Yadkin County residents, many whose families have lived in the area for generations, fear the property could turn into a mine as the depth of the drill holes has dropped from 240 feet to 490 feet.

“The place looks like a pin cushion,” said Danny Steelman, whose property is adjacent to the drilling area, to the Yadkin County Planning and Zoning Board.

Yadkin is just south and west of Stokes County. A commercially important vein of fuel-rich shale is believed to flow under the Dan River basin. Residents of the Walnut Cove area have been battling fracking since 2014, and there is still a current Facebook group called “No Fracking In Stokes”.

The 500-acre land is owned by Wilma Sherrill, a Yadkin County native and former state representative, who served in the legislature from 1994 to 2006, and her husband, Jerry Sherrill. The property is for sale. The Sherrills live in another county; they could not be reached for comment.

The neighbors are in the dark

Jack Mitchell, president of Synergy Materials, said the company does “due diligence to determine the highest and best use of land.” He did not want to specify what these uses could be.

Mitchell is a real estate developer with experience leasing oil and gas land. He was previously president of Wisconsin Proppants, a mining company specializing in “frack sand” used in the hydraulic fracturing industry.

From 2016 to 2018, while Mitchell was in charge, Wisconsin Proppants reported injury rates three to six times the national rate, according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. During the same period, the MSHA cited the company 50 times for violations.

Wisconsin Proppants operated a mine that dumped 400,000 gallons of mine slurry into waterways in 2019, media reports said. In a lawsuit against the company, several neighbors of the mine claimed that the pollution had killed part of their livestock.

Synergy Materials is not registered with the Secretary of State’s office in North Carolina. Mitchell’s LinkedIn page shows that Synergy is located in Nashville, Tenn.

Mitchell said he plans to hold a community meeting “soon” to be “completely transparent” with residents. “I work on various projects and I don’t want to fuel the guesswork until we know the intent.”

However, Mitchell has not been transparent in his dealings with a resident, who lives near the drilling site. The resident, who asked not to be named, rents commercial properties in the area. She said Mitchell approached her about renting space for a community meeting. She added when she asked Mitchell about the meeting topic, he replied that he would only tell her if she signed a nondisclosure agreement. She didn’t sign it.

“Mr. Mitchell creates the greatest human fear – fear of the unknown,” the woman said.

Data from the US Geological Survey shows that Yadkin County is based on several types of rocks and minerals, including granite, silica, feldspar and quartz. There is also an earth fingerling on the Yadkin-Davie County line, one of the North Carolina basins believed to contain shale gas or possibly helium.

North Carolina’s lithium belt stretches from the state’s border with South Carolina in the northeast through Cherryville to Lincolnton, about 65 miles from Hamptonville. Piedmont Lithium plans to build one of the country’s largest mines in Gaston County, to serve the electric car industry. And Toyota recently announced that it will build a large electric car battery plant near Liberty in Randolph County.

Residents express their concerns

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality officials have often publicly stated that it’s easier to shut down a project locally than after it reaches state. That’s what concerned Yadkin County residents – there are more than 540 on a private group Facebook page – are trying to do. They call on county commissioners, school board, and planning and zoning officials to be vigilant, especially regarding the potential risks mining would pose to the local water supply.

Residents depend on groundwater to supply their private wells. Most of these wells are shallower than 500 feet – the depth of current drilling.

The subject property is also adjacent to West Yadkin Elementary School. The drilling rigs entered the property on a private road – about the width of a driveway – which runs alongside the school. The drillers are at Universal Engineering, based in Florida.

The drilling property is veined by wetlands and streams, including tributaries to Lake Hampton, which is just three miles away. Yadkin officials have designated the 140-acre lake as the county’s future water supply.

“As owners, we think this is a bad thing,” Steelman said. “We are very concerned about the value of our properties. “

There are also risks for agriculture. The farmlands of Yadkin County are dotted with valleys and mounds, like a blanket on an unmade bed. Cattle graze on pastures and gentle slopes among rolls of hay.

Brad Storie lives near the drilling site and owns four livestock farms. He won a 2015 award from the Soil and Water Conservation Society for his environmentally friendly farming practices, including keeping his livestock and waste out of waterways. “I take the quality of the water seriously,” added Storie.

Drillers previously failed to close their boreholes, which could allow contamination to enter groundwater. Storie said the holes were now sealed. Storie said he and a representative from a local water well drilling company had planned to meet with the Florida drillers. “They didn’t show up,” Storie said.

Synergy does not need to obtain a permit for exploratory drilling unless more than an acre of land is disturbed, a DEQ spokesperson said.

If the company proceeds with mining, it will need to receive several approvals – water, air, mining, and sedimentation and erosion permits – from the state. Due to the waterways and wetlands on the property, the US Army Corps of Engineers should also grant a water quality permit.

Neither DEQ nor USACE were aware of the potential drilling, officials from both agencies said.

The land is classified as agricultural, but would need to be rezoned for mining or industrial purposes. The company has yet to apply for a zoning change, said Dean Swain, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board.

“We are aware of your concerns,” Swain told Steelman. “Like you, we are in the dark.”