A coalition of anti-fracking residents from throughout southern Illinois are responding to new legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, vowing to continue their battle against the industry that threatens the health of their communities and water supply.
Touted as one of the toughest regulatory bills in the nation, environmental organizations and advocates living in oil-rich southern Illinois say that simply isn’t the case.
While language in the bill indicates oil companies will have to disclose the chemicals being used in the drilling process, provisions in the new law allow companies to avoid disclosing any chemical deemed to be a “trade secret.”
According to Environment Illinois, one-third of fracking “jobs” use carcinogens. This creates a problem when leaks occur, as it’s difficult for area residents to determine the chemicals they’re exposed to.
The law also allows fracking to occur close to homes and waterways, with regulations calling for a 500-foot setback for homes and a 300-foot setback for waterways.
Following the bill’s passage, Southern Illinois Against Fracking our Environment, otherwise known as SAFE, declared the fight to be far from over.
“We reject the legitimacy of Illinois’ fracking regulatory bill, which was the result of closed-door negotiations between industry representatives and compromise-oriented environmental organizations,” SAFE stated in an email. “Responsible only to their funders and their members, these environmental groups do not represent us nor are they empowered to negotiate on our behalf.”
SAFE was responding to the commonly cited collaboration among environmental groups and industry representatives. For those in the heart of the environmental advocacy community, Illinois’ fracking bill is a win for the industry, not environmentalists.
In the lead-up to the bill’s passage, a wide ranging group of environmentalists were calling instead for a moratorium and investigation into the impacts of the industry, particularly on groundwater and drinking water supplies.
“Our view is that fracking is inherently destructive and polluting, and so the Illinois legislature should have banned the dirty drilling practice altogether,” John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America, said in a statement to Mint Press News.
It gets personal
Annette McMichael is a 66-year-old grandmother of 11 who lives in Illinois’ Johnson County, an area in the southern tip of the state that is currently being eyed by the oil industry.
She’s not alone. According to Brad Richards, the Illinois Oil and Gas Association executive vice president, more than half a million acres of land have already been leased out by the oil companies — and there are likely to be more on the way.
McMichael, communications officer for SAFE, doesn’t consider herself to be an environmentalist, but admits that she’s willing to do what it takes to keep the industry out of her state — and her backyard. The problems among those living in oil-rich areas aren’t complex, she said. Not only are they concerned about declining property values, they’re also concerned about the threat to landscape and groundwater supplies.
“We’re not radical, crazy people,” she told Mint Press News. “We have families, and we work just like everybody else.”
This weekend, McMichael will join other advocates and members of SAFE for a meeting in Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest. While the organization has dedicated much of its time lobbying against the fracking bill, it’s now taking a step back and forming its plan of action for the future.
On the agenda is the creation of a spin-off organization dedicated to peaceful acts of civil disobedience, including man-powered blockades.
McMichael claims she and other members of SAFE begged the governor to meet with them about their concerns with the regulations. While the organization is working with a team of environmental lawyers from the around the nation to evaluate their next steps, McMichael said she and others are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their land.
“I think we’re all willing to be arrested in a variety of different direct actions, because we’re so frustrated and we think this is our only choice, unless we can use legal means,” she told Mint Press News.
An uphill information battle
As the spin-off organization focuses on mobilizing advocates to take part in blockades and the like, SAFE will take on a new mission of educating residents of southern Illinois on the potential dangers of the industry.
“I do not believe we’ve scratched the surface of educating the people on the risks of fracking,” McMichael told Mint Press News.
She points to the industry-sponsored advertisement campaign carried in out in Illinois, claiming the ads, along with the promise of jobs and an economic boom, have fueled support for fracking in southern Illinois.
In McMichael’s Johnson County, the poverty rate is 15 percent. In nearby Pope County, which also sits atop oil-rich land, the poverty rate is 20 percent. Illinois Democratic Rep. John Bradley claims the fracking industry in the state could create 70,000 jobs. Richards told AgriNews that, as of this month, there have been “hundreds of millions of dollars” spent on leases.
“It could be a real good thing,” 23-year-old Pope County resident Frank Johnson told the Associated Press, claiming that many young men who grew up in the area join the military as a means to find employment and get away.
These are the odds McMichael and her fellow-anti-fracking advocates face. Yet she’s confident that residents will change their minds when they realize the repercussions it could have in their communities. Residents of Pennsylvania, where the industry is in full bloom, are stepping forward to help anti-fracking advocates in other states on the cusp of their own booms.
“Many of the victims of fracking in Pennsylvania have gone out of their way to tell their stories in New York and show New Yorkers what’s happening,” John Armstrong of the New Yorkers Against Fracking coalition told Mint Press News.
An advertising campaign put together by the New York organization highlights the stories of real Pennsylvania residents who have lived with the industry for a decade.
“My children have had nosebleeds and blisters in the mouths,” a woman identified as Pam said. Her voice is joined by a farmer who claimed cattle have been lost after they were exposed to a fracking-contaminated pond.
In terms of spills, fracking states have seen their fair share. Earlier this year, Carrizo Oil and Gas dumped more than 200,000 gallons of fracking fluid onto farmland and residential areas in Pennsylvania. This month in Ohio, the state Department of Natural Resources determined Harch Environmental Resources was blatantly dumping fracking fluid into a private pond.
In Colorado, which previously claimed to have the strongest fracking regulations, 340 drilling spills contaminated drinking water, according to Environment Illinois. Even with the regulation requiring at least a 300-foot setback from rivers and streams, the organization says Illinois waterways are still vulnerable.
These are the stories that scare Illinois residents — and it’s what they’re fighting against.
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