By Lois Kain
Lois Kain lives in Urbana and is a member of Food and Water Watch and Sierra Club.
Illinois has so far avoided the damages that inevitably result from horizontal, or directional, High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF), known as fracking. The first HVHF permit was stopped in its tracks in Fall 2017 by organized and determined citizens in Southern Illinois, supported by over 5,000 letters to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Woolsey Operating Company, deciding the process had become too lengthy and costly, pulled their application. But there are others that would frack our state, and the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act of 2013 will not protect us. Now is the time for Illinois to join New York, Maryland, and Vermont, and ban fracking.
While we regularly read about climate change, and environmental and health issues associated with fracking, this destructive extractive industry also causes striking increases in societal burdens and financial harm. Since the fracking boom kicked off in 2005, there has been mounting evidence of miserable consequences wherever fracking has been welcomed into communities with the promise of wealth and jobs. That promise has come with a much larger price tag of violent and organized crime, sex crimes, drug and alcohol abuse, infrastructure damage, social pressures, unfulfilled job creation, environmental devastation, ruined farmland, property devaluation, and reduced royalty payments to landowners. From all over the country, studies and reports tell similar stories of communities wrecked by the fracking boom-and-bust cycles. But while people and planet lose, the fracking industry rakes in billions in profits and taxpayer subsidies.
The influx of out-of-state, transient, predominantly male workers, often create “man camps” that drive human trafficking that includes children, sex workers and prostitution, sexual assault, and the rise of STDs. Violent crimes against women, homeowners, businesses, and community members, as well as drug-related crimes, increase. Methamphetamine, heroin, and alcohol use spikes. Numbers of DUIs, crashes, injuries, and deaths can be linked to increased fracking activity. Driving on rural roads becomes more dangerous, with heavy trucks hauling frack sand, water, and chemicals on damaged roads that were never meant for such traffic. Overweight trucks with safety violations compound the dangers. Speeding trucks banging along country roads spewing diesel fumes disrupt normally quiet countrysides.
The surge in population, crimes, and general “hell-raising” strains emergency agencies, municipal services, and infrastructure. Police and fire departments, first responders, emergency rooms, hospitals, and social services are forced to deal with heavier demands, often without increased staff or funds. The road and bridge damages leave municipalities holding the bag for millions of dollars when fracking companies do not cover repair costs. Demands on water and sewer infrastructure stretch the budgets of local governments, and fires from eruptions and explosions can require responses from multiple fire departments. We know that fracking activities can cause frequent earthquakes that severely compromise or destroy buildings and infrastructure, not to mention frightening local populations. Southern Illinois sits in two primary seismic zones: the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone. This does not bode well.
Exaggerated job numbers persuade communities that fracking will bring opportunities to their citizens. But oil and gas companies are notorious for wage theft and breaking wage laws. Workers have been forced to go to court to recover lost wages. Withheld overtime compensation keeps workers from making even minimum wage. And those overtime hours are often enabled by rising methamphetamine use to help workers stay awake for two or three days to grind through long shifts. There is also evidence that the lure of big paychecks for low-skilled labor entices male high school students to drop out. When the bust comes these young men have no high school diploma, which can have consequences throughout their lives.
Farmland around drill sites will probably never be suitable for farming again. Fracking “accidents” contaminate once-productive land, and farmers are confronted with industrial waste and trash. Fracking often pits farmer against farmer, and against a ruthless wealthy industry for access to clean water. The industry knows that inherent hazards and risks in fracking practices are so great that some banks will not issue mortgages, and property insurance can be impossible to get. Gas companies that are significantly reducing royalty payments to landowners with leases is becoming a widespread complaint. Property values decrease greatly for homes that rely on well water located near drilling sites, for fear of groundwater contamination, even to the point of making them unsellable. Who wants to live near a frack site anyway? Certainly not ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Industry officials like to tout that there are no recorded harms from fracking. But homeowners and landowners who have brought lawsuits and won have been forced into gag orders and non-disclosure agreements that prevent the details from reaching the public. A settlement in Pennsylvania from 2013 has FORBIDDEN the two children of the plaintiffs from ever discussing fracking for the rest of their lives!
When gas production falls and the bust comes, communities are left with empty hotel rooms and residential developments, shuttered businesses, late or ceased car loan and mortgage payments, foreclosures and repossessions, negative impacts on property values, and depressed local tax revenues.
When the price of oil hit bottom in 2016, the bust cycle of fracking hit communities across the country hard, but kept frackers out of Illinois. With oil prices on the rise and the Trump administration being the most anti-environment, pro-industry administration of all time, our country is in for rough times. Trump, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt seem hell-bent on laying open vast swaths of our lands for sacrifice zones for extreme energy extraction, offering up our coastlines and public lands to all the horrors of fossil fuel extraction.
Fracking operations near and on public lands, national and state parks, and natural and wildlife refuges will cause not only heartbreaking ecological degradation but also may chase away nature and wildlife lovers from beloved natural areas. Our wild and beautiful Shawnee National Forest could get fracked, using millions of gallons of our freshwater and millions of tons of sand blasted and mined out of the hills around Starved Rock State Park. Gorgeous vistas made ugly by fracking wells, flaring stacks, storage tanks and ponds, illegal dumping, and unbreathable methane-filled air will change our forest forever.
Illinoisans have the chance right now to stop fracking from bringing irreparable harm to our state. The Illinois Coalition Against Fracking is building a strong resistance against the fracking industry. Three bills have been introduced in Springfield this legislative season. HB5743, introduced by Representative Scott Drury, is a ban that will prohibit fracking in our state. If this passes we’re home free. There are two more bills to protect landowners. HB5716, introduced by Representative Will Guzzardi, would offer protection for property owners and would require “written consent from each owner affected by the removal of minerals.” SB3174, introduced by Senator David Koehler, is a “sunshine” or transparency modification that removes any confidentiality clause: the length and direction of fracks, and the nature of the chemicals used, would no longer be confidential and hidden from the public. Illinois is still regulating under the 1951 Oil and Gas Act!
Time is short. Pick up your phones. Pick up your pens. We need to tell our lawmakers: NO FRACKING! It will be so much better for Illinois if we keep the frackers out than to have to fight them once they are here.
For more information see the Food & Water Watch Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FoodandWaterWatchMidwest/; or their website at www.foodandwaterwatch.org.