This story was first published by NC Policy Watch on Dec. 14.

by Lisa Sorg

For the past six months, mysterious drilling has been conducted on a vast tract of land north of Hamptonville, in Yadkin County, and the company president behind the project is refusing to disclose what he’s looking for and why.

Dozens of Yadkin County residents, many whose families have lived in the area for generations, are alarmed that the property might be become a mine, as the depth of the drilling holes has increased from 240 feet to 490 feet. 

“The place looks like a pin cushion,” Danny Steelman, whose property is adjacent to the drilling area, told the Yadkin County planning and zoning board Monday night.

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

Yadkin County, represented in red, is underlaid by many types of minerals, including granite. The southern part of the county that borders Davie County is also thought to contain natural gas. (Photo: State of NC)

Fracking? Mining? Neighbors remain in the dark

Jack Mitchell, president of Synergy Materials, told Policy Watch that the company is doing “due diligence to determine the highest and best use of the land.” He would not elaborate on what those uses might be.

Mitchell is a real estate developer with experience in oil and gas land leasing. He was previously the president of Wisconsin Proppants, a mining company that specialized in “frac sand,” used in the fracking industry. 

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

Danny Steelman, foreground, told the Yadkin County Planning and Zoning Board about the community’s concerns regarding drilling that is happening on 500 acres in Hamptonville. Forty-four households own property adjacent to the drilling site, all of them reliant on groundwater for their drinking water wells. Also pictured is Planning Board member Seth Harris. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Wisconsin Proppants operated a mine that spilled 400,000 gallons of mine sludge into waterways in 2019, according to media reports. In a lawsuit against the company, several neighbors of that mine alleged pollution killed some of their cattle. 

It’s unclear if Mitchell was still with the company when the incident occurred. 

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

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

However, Mitchell was not transparent in dealings with one resident, who lives near the drilling site. The resident, who asked not to be named, leases commercial properties in the area. She told Policy Watch that Mitchell approached her about renting space for a community meeting. 

She said when she asked Mitchell about the topic of the meeting, he replied that he would tell her only if she signed a non-disclosure agreement. She did not sign it.

“Mr. Mitchell is creating the greatest human fear — the fear of the unknown,” she told Policy Watch.

Mitchell did not respond to a follow-up phone call from Policy Watch seeking more information.

US Geological Survey data show Yadkin County is underlaid by several types of rocks and minerals, including granite, silica, feldspar and quartz. 

There is also a fingerling of land on the Yadkin-Davie county line, one of the basins in North Carolina thought to have shale gas or possibly helium.

North Carolina’s lithium belt extends from the state line with South Carolina northeast through Cherryville to Lincolnton, about 65 miles from Hamptonville. Piedmont Lithium plans to build one of the nation’s largest mines in Gaston County, to serve the electric car industry. And Toyota recently announced it would build a large electric car battery plant near Liberty in Randolph County about 80 miles east-southeast of Hamptonville.

Residents voice concerns, organize

NC Department of Environmental Quality officials have often said publicly that it’s easier to stop a project at the local level than once it reaches the state. That’s what concerned Yadkin County residents — there are more than 540 on a private group Facebook page — are trying to do. They are petitioning county commissioners, the school board and planning and zoning officials to be vigilant, especially concerning potential risks mining would pose to the local water supply.

Residents rely on groundwater to supply their private wells. Most of those wells are shallower than 500 feet — the depth of the current drilling.

The property in question is also adjacent to West Yadkin Elementary School. Drilling rigs have been accessing the property on a private road — about the width of a driveway — that runs by the school. The drillers are with Universal Engineering, based in Florida, according to a photo taken by a neighbor and shared with Policy Watch.

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

“As property owners we think it’s a bad thing,” Steelman said. “We’re very concerned about our property values.”

There are also risks to agriculture. Yadkin County’s farmland is ruffled with valleys and knolls, like a blanket on an unmade bed. Cattle graze on pastures and gentle hillsides among rolls of hay. 

Brad Storie lives near the drilling site and owns four cattle farms. He won an award in 2015 from the Soil and Water Conservation Society for his environmentally sound farming practices, including keeping his livestock and their waste out of streams. “I take water quality seriously,” Storie told Policy Watch.

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

Synergy doesn’t have to get a permit for exploratory drilling unless more than an acre of land is disturbed, a DEQ spokesman told Policy Watch.

If the company proceeds with mining, it would have to receive several approvals — water, air, mining and sedimentation and erosion permits — from the state. Because of the streams and wetlands on the property, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would also have to grant a water quality permit.

Neither DEQ nor the USACE knew about the prospective drilling, officials from both agencies said. 

The land is classified as agricultural, but would need to be rezoned for mining or industrial uses. The company has not yet requested a rezoning, 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.”

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