At two public hearings on proposed regulation, residents of Chicago and southern Illinois showed they stand united against fracking in the Land of Lincoln. The crowd in Chicago got rowdy when a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hearing officer told a packed room they shouldn't speak out for a fracking ban because that "train has left the station." In southern Illinois, residents showed fierce determination to protect their communities and promised ongoing resistance.
Several hundred people attended over two hours of public comments at Rend Lake College in southern Illinois. Only two expressed support for fracking. A former oil rig worker, a 30-year former coal miner, small business owners, at least three Eagle Scouts, and lifelong southern Illinois residents gave testimony criticizing fracking and the proposed rules.
After making technical comments, legendary Shawnee Forest defender Sam Stearns warned, "The fact is that there's going to be a good deal of resistance to any effort to frack here in southern Illinois because people like myself who live in southern Illinois don't intend to be unintended consequences or collateral damage. I can assure you there will be resistance at every step of this proposed fracking."
Karen Genet spoke about how it will change the rural character that draws people to the region. "The industrialization of southern Illinois will be a death blow to our way of life. And it will be the squandering of one of the last wild places left in the Midwest for the sake of short-term, short-sighted fossil fuel gluttony."
Several citizens, including Illinois Green Party Chair Rich Whitney, raised the dangers of fracking in seismic zones like the Wabash and New Madrid fault lines. A local business owner asked if the state intended to reimburse businesses that depend on tourism. A retired coal miner spoke about rising crime and other social impacts that come with a fracking boom. The loudest applause came in response to a suggestion that DNR include women as hearing officers in the future, instead of the all-male panel representing the agency that evening.
Regulations proposed by DNR would allow recommended fines to be reduced or waived at the agency's discretion. Low penalties starting at $50 already have the public outraged, and they may not be collected at all.
Additionally, the history of environmental penalties against a company at existing wells in Illinois is not listed as a reason to deny new permits. A company may have hundreds of violations and still receive a new permit. There's no accountability for a company's record when they apply for new permits.
At the discretion of DNR, frackers could rack up hundreds of violations, pay no fines, and still receive permits for new wells.
I've been to many hearings for proposed fossil fuel projects in downstate Illinois that were packed with a few hundred union members told to show up and repeat the same talking points about jobs. The other side is usually half a dozen environmentalists, with some of those coming from outside the area. In stark contrast, the Rend Lake fracking hearing was an inspiring demonstration of a region united to create jobs that won't do long term damage to their environment and economy.
Speakers at both hearings made it clear by their comments and applause that the organizations and legislators who helped Governor Pat Quinn pass a weak fracking law don't represent the environmental movement or residents in impacted regions of southern Illinois. The Rend Lake hearing is a reality check that southern Illinoisans will not accept a runaway fracking train.