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Water at Risk: Stop Fracking in Illinois

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Illinois, where I live, is on the eve of passing fracking legislation that's been called "the nation's strictest" and "a potential model for other states." The proposed legislation is Senate Bill 1715, and it is currently awaiting the signature of Governor Pat Quinn.

Before examining Illinois' proposed regulations, it's useful to review the damage already inflicted and currently being inflicted in areas where high-volume fracking already occurs. In Pennsylvania, where sixty percent of the population lives above the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, water contamination has become an increasingly daunting concern.

Gasland, a fracking documentary directed by Josh Fox, exemplifies the problems with fracking in a terrifying way. Fox travels across heavily fracked regions of Pennsylvania and Colorado to interview homeowners living on property with fracking sites--sites that have been deemed to have safe water by the natural gas companies drilling on them. In more than one home, Fox and his crew capture a scene like something out of a sci-fi film or post-apocalyptic world: tap water catching fire as it flows from a faucet.

Pennsylvanians on the Marcellus Shale who've watched as their water was contaminated by fracking have had little help from the Pennsylvania Department of Environment, a bureau that's meant to safeguard the State's environment. The DEP has ignored parts of their own lab results that have shown water to be contaminated by fracking, in addition to failing to utilize Code 944, a provision created to detect water contamination caused by fracking.

Negligence by the Pennsylvania DEP is part of what makes fracking such a threat to groundwater and the people who rely on it. Natural gas companies add a cocktail of chemicals to the pressurized water they inject into the ground, a combination of up to 596 chemicals that varies from site to site. If you're on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, the chemical mix responsible for contaminating your well water may be different from your neighbors, but you'll never know; natural gas companies are allowed to conceal their chemical usage on the grounds that these chemical cocktails are proprietary.

Contaminating groundwater without disclosure is essentially rolling the dice with public health, as toxic water is pumped into homes while residents are told nothing is unordinary. In Fox's film, residents of Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas report being told by gas company representatives that their water is safe to drink. In the ultimate act of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is, more than one resident immediately asked industry representatives if they'd like to drink a glass of tap water. Unsurprisingly, all refused--they knew as well as anyone the water was poison.

So, what does Illinois have to be worried about? The State's proposed fracking legislation calls for the hiring of dozens of engineers, inspectors, scientists and lawyers for a regulatory program that will supposedly hold gas companies in check by requiring disclosure of chemicals used and charging an $11,000 fee for each drilling permit. Everything should be fine once the regulations come to fruition, shouldn't it? Gas companies will, in theory, have to research before they drill and consider the water supplies of nearby homes.

Not quite. Before Senate Bill 1715, fracking was already occurring in Illinois, albeit without any regulations, similar to what's been happening in Pennsylvania. Illinois' environmental groups conceded it was better to push for regulations than to go for an outright statewide ban of fracking.

Will permits and disclosure of chemicals be enough to make fracking safe in Illinois? An $11,000 per-site permit is pocket change to the multibillion dollar gas companies, and disclosing chemicals won't prevent companies from using them. Residents of Southern Illinois may be provided with a list of the detergents and formaldehydes in their water, but the chemicals will still be there to poison people, wildlife and nature alike.

Regions of Illinois that are fracked--predominantly in the economically depressed southern part of the state--could come to face similar problems as those in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where tap water in some homes runs black.

Once Governor Quinn signs Senate Bill 1715, which he's expressed his intent to do, Illinois water may not yet be black in color and catch fire when exposed to a flame, but that won't mean residents aren't still getting burned.

To voice your disapproval of fracking in Illinois and call for a statewide fracking stoppage, sign Food & Water Watch's online petition.

To urge President Obama and the U.S. Congress to support a national ban on fracking, sign this petition.

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