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This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press, courtesy of The Sylva Herald.
By Quintin Ellison
The Sylva Herald
As the state tests for natural gas deposits, some Jackson County property owners are fretting about decades-old decisions to sell mineral rights.
Jackson County Register of Deeds Joe Hamilton said one or two landowners a week want his staff to check the thread of mineral-rights ownership attached to their deeds. News about the testing for possible natural gas deposits broke in May.
People are worried about whether prior landowners sold the mineral rights, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by companies seeking natural gas, Hamilton said.
The N.C. General Assembly ordered state geologists to collect rock samples this summer from the seven westernmost counties; an outside company will test them. Kenneth Taylor, head of the Geological Survey Section, said in May that his employees would examine and obtain samples of black-colored rocks. The question is whether the rocks are black due to the presence of organic carbon or for some other reason. Natural gas is a product of decomposed organic matter.
Western North Carolina, including Jackson County, has long been a hotspot for mining. Kaolin, corundum, olivine, mica, copper – at one time or another, from ancient into modern times, the great abundance and variety of minerals in these mountain have attracted would-be profiteers. Some of the mines were just simple circular pits dug by locals who were hoping to make a bit of extra money. Big, national companies also moved into Jackson County and neighboring WNC communities, however, buying up mineral rights from land-rich, cash-strapped property owners.
Commissioners’ Chairman Jack Debnam, owner of a real estate company, explained possession of mineral rights entitled companies to drill and, if they — figuratively speaking — found gold, to not pay the landowners more money. He estimated in the Webster area alone, about half of the property owners, at one time or another, sold their mineral rights. Companies were after olivine, he said.
Olivene was used as a source of lightweight metal magnesium in World War II and for Epsom salts. A 1940s-wartime federal survey found 1.2 billion tons of the mineral in the Southeastern states, with about a third of that here in Jackson County, according to “The History of Jackson County,” edited by Max Williams.
When people buy land they generally purchase title insurance to protect themselves from loss in an ownership dispute. Lenders do the same. The title companies search public records to identify liens, claims or encumbrances. They then certify a “clean” deed, or one that is untainted by disputed interests.
“They’ll usually search 40 years back,” Debnam said, adding the records sweep includes ferreting out whether mining companies holding mineral rights still exist. If things are OK, the land deal can proceed.
“Even the most careful preventive work cannot always locate hidden hazards of the title,” notes a consumer guide to title insurance by the N.C. Department of Insurance.
If there is a problem, title insurance does three things:
• Protection from financial loss due to covered claims against your title, up to the face amount of the policy.
• Payment of legal costs if the title insurance company is required to defend a title against covered claims.
• Payment of successful claims against a title, up to the face amount of the policy.