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Protecting Illinois From Fracking

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The prospect of the gas industry coming to Illinois to extract gas from beneath our state using high-volume hydraulic fracturing has caused a great deal of controversy and concern, especially in parts of Illinois where leasing for drilling rights has been underway for well over a year. Horror stories from other states about open pits of toxic wastewater, secret brews of toxins injected into the earth, air emissions sickening neighbors, and contaminated drinking water are just a few of the impacts seen elsewhere.

Can we stop the industry from bringing fracking to Illinois? When legislators proposed a two-year moratorium on the practice last year, we strongly supported that proposal, and we support continued calls for a moratorium today. However, we also need to acknowledge that fracking is legal today in Illinois, and for all we know, may already be occurring as you read this. We also need to recognize that our current laws regulating oil and gas drilling, originally passed in 1941, are totally inadequate to deal with the range of issues raised by injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laced fluid deep into the earth only to come surging back with gas and potentially oil. In short, Illinois citizens and our environment, at the moment, are virtually defenseless against against the problems experienced in other states.

That's why it is essential that Illinois move quickly to get the strongest possible safeguards in place to protect citizens and their water supplies. Fortunately, discussions in Springfield have produced a basic agreement on what would be the strongest set of protections of any state in the country. The open pits for wastewater in use in other states will be banned here, and there will be none of the dumping the water into wastewater treatment plants, which has overwhelmed sewage plants elsewhere. The discharge of any fracking wastewater into surface water will be a felony offense. The industry must disclose what chemicals are used, and the most toxic ones will be banned. Ann Alexander from the Natural Resources Defense Council, who helped represent environmental groups in the negotiations that produced the proposal, has a good rundown on the major provisions of the bill here.

We certainly applaud the leaders who recognized the urgency of getting these safeguards in place. Representatives John Bradley (D-Marion) and David Reis (R-Olney) led the talks, and Ann Williams (D-Chicago), Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana), and House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn-Currie (D-Chicago) particularly focused on the environmental safeguards. Governor Quinn's Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which has been advocating for strong legislation for over a year, will be faced with regulating the industry and played a critical role. Attorney General Lisa Madigan's team fought for the strongest possible regulations at every step of the way.

The bill is certainly not perfect, and its ultimate effectiveness in protecting public health and the environment will be in how it is enforced. This will be a major test for the Department of Natural Resources, which will need significant new resources to do the job. That will be a key issue in the next phase of discussions, which will focus on taxes and fees the industry must pay. If the safeguards in HB2615 are going to work, they must be accompanied by adequate fees, paid by industry, to cover the state's substantial costs.

We certainly share the concerns of those who live in areas where tracking is likely to occur - they have reason to be concerned. Hopefully, once House Bill 2615 is signed into law, they will be much safer than they are today, and much better protected than citizens in other states facing the same concerns. We may not be able to decide whether fracking comes to Illinois, but we absolutely must decide to make sure we are as protected as we can be.