Fracking in Southern Illinois Raises Widespread Concerns
Environmental and Economic Impact Felt Across the State
Photo courtesy of Joe Dick with Shooting Stars Photos Inc. ShootingStarsInc.com
While sometimes taken for granted, few things are more important to basic health than clean air and water. That’s why environmentalists and activists in Illinois have been pushing to eliminate the practice of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. It’s not just a practice that’s occurring in other states; a growing number of sites are springing up in the southern Illinois landscape, to the concern of local residents.
According to Food & Water Watch (FoodAndWaterWatch.org), fracking is an intensive process in which millions of gallons of fluid, typically water, silica sand and chemicals, some known to cause cancer, are injected underground at high pressure to fracture shale that will release oil or gas and flow into the well. Tabitha Tripp, an activist with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing the Environment, or SAFE, (DontFractureIllinois.net), says, “Fracking is the trading of clean water for dirty oil.”
Traditional oil drilling has been taking place in southern Illinois for decades, says Brian Sauder, policy director at Faith In Place (FaithInPlace.org), in Champaign. Leases and plans for a new scale of fracking, however, are receiving more attention due to the aggressive measures that are being used. “Traditionally, it was low-volume vertical drilling to extract oil. But 15 years ago, a new technology was developed to drill not only vertically, but horizontally,” says Sauder, and it has arrived in Illinois. He explains that where oil companies were previously using 10,000 gallons of water, they now are using millions of gallons, laced with nasty, toxic chemicals.
“Fracking so deeply affects a given community that it’s difficult to limit the impact,” says Emily Carroll, Midwest region director at Food & Water Watch. “Fracking is linked to water contamination, and rural communities that rely on well water are especially vulnerable. It’s not always easy to determine if the water is contaminated. Sometimes farmers don’t realize it until their livestock start dying.”
Tripp states that while the industry says that they recycle the water that comes back up, in truth, only 20 percent to 50 percent of it returns to the surface, while the rest remains in the deep injection well. “This is water that’s mixed with a toxic chemical cocktail, and may include methane,” says Carroll, adding that “injection wells have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.” Tripp reports that entire communities have lost their water supply to brine spills and injection wells failing. She says there are more than 1,000 documented cases of water contamination adjacent to areas of gas drilling, as well as cases of sensory, respiratory and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.
According to Annette McMichael, SAFE communications director, Illinois is expected to experience severe water shortages by 2030. “Since fracking uses large amounts of water, this will exacerbate the problem,” she says. “Water could be trucked from Lake Michigan to serve drilling needs.”
The impact on roads from trucks is another serious concern for Illinois. Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to regularly carry water and supplies to and from the site. For people living in the small communities where fracking is happening, that’s a big impact on their infrastructure and economy. Pamela Richart, co-director of the Eco-Justice Collaborative (EcoJusticeCollaborative.org), in Chicago, says the oil and gas companies offer false promises to rural, often economically depressed, communities that are looking for an economic boost.
“They say they’re going to come into your town and turn things around. They will lease your land and tell you that you are going to benefit as a landowner, and promise to bring jobs into town,” Richart says. “But landowners are not well informed of the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing to their land and water, and companies often bring skilled labor in from outside the community, rather than hire from within. There is increased truck traffic and wear and tear on roads. There are lingering costs for the taxpayer that people don’t really see coming.”
Food & Water Watch did a study on a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of New York State claiming that opening up large parts of New York to fracking and developing 500 new shale gas wells would create 62,620 new jobs. They found numerous inaccuracies and flaws in the report, and the institute eventually corrected the job development number to 6,656. Carroll points out that many of the promised jobs are temporary, such as delivering bottles of water to the workers.
In the meantime, the land is being irreversibly compromised. “Many banks won’t give mortgages on fracked land,” she says. There is also a negative effect on tourism which, in southern Illinois, includes the unique Shawnee National Forest.
The Illinois General Assembly in May passed the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act, led by Senator Mike Frerichs, Representative Naomi Jakobsson and Representative John Bradley, which puts a hold on high-volume, hydraulic fracturing until the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) can put in place specific requirements. The IDNR is the agency primarily responsible for regulating the fracking, and SAFE and other organizations are pushing to allow the public to have input before the draft of the rules is issued. McMichael expects the first draft to be available in late October.
In the meantime, the act puts very specific measures in place and is considered by some to be the strongest protection against water pollution in the nation. It includes prohibition of open-air ponds for wastewater storage, strong waste fluid management requirements, comprehensive water-monitoring requirements and well construction standards.
Sauder is especially excited about a presumption of liability for water pollution. Sites would be subject to baseline water testing, and then would be tested again after the oil drilling. “If it’s higher than before, it’s assumed that the company is guilty of water contamination,” says Sauder. “It’s a big incentive to be extra careful.” The act also calls for wildlife protection, earthquake prevention and air-quality standards. “The air quality state statue goes above and beyond federal standards,” says Sauder. “Companies are required to capture any gas that’s released and put it to beneficial use.”
While fracking isn’t likely to happen in the Chicago area, Richart points out that its effects are felt all over. “We are in a drought that has affected agriculture throughout our state and, according to the Groundwater Protection Council, every fracking job requires up to 4 million gallons of freshwater. Plus, accidents can and do happen. The drilling process can cause pollution as a result of well failure and surface spills of chemicals and wastewater. Why would we subject our residents and our water to the possibility of irreversible pollution?”
“People in Chicago can help by approaching their state representatives to support a moratorium on fracking,” encourages Carroll. “Cities and townships have the ability to ban fracking locally, but need to give county boards that power.” Tripp says that if fracking continues, all Illinois taxpayers will be held responsible, as they have with other polluting industries. “Whether it’s replacement water supplies, healthcare or reclamation of polluted sites, the cost is passed on to the consumer.”
The discussion with lawmakers continues, but Sauder is happy that we do have a law now in place with provisions to protect water quality, assure transparency and promote public involvement. “We all are going to keep working on protecting our environment,” he says. “The act isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. We would love to pass a moratorium, but it’s a matter of feasibility. Still, it’s good to have some environmental protection in place.”
Some believe that the state will be hard-pressed to enforce the new regulations and that no matter how tough they are, the risks to Illinois residents from pollution outweigh any possible benefits. SAFE and other organizations plan to continue the fight to stop fracking in the state.
Carrie Jackson blogs at SpeakingOfCare.blogspot.com.