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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 12:01 am

Fracking opponents give regulators an earful

Roy Wehrle of Springfield testifies at a public hearing in Decatur about proposed regulations to hydraulic fracturing. About 250 people showed up to the meeting, mostly in opposition to fracking.


Hundreds of people turned out Tuesday evening for a public hearing in Decatur to point out holes in proposed regulations for a controversial oil and gas extraction technique. The meeting was one of several held around the state at which environmentalists, landowners and others spoke up to oppose the rules and the extraction technique itself.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources held a public meeting Dec. 17 at the Decatur Civic Center on proposed regulations of hydraulic fracturing, which is used in some states to free up deposits of oil and natural gas trapped in shale rock deep underground. The Illinois General Assembly passed a law to officially legalize “fracking” in June 2013, and IDNR is now tasked with creating a regulatory structure to implement the law.

Fracking involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals about 5,000 feet underground to crack shale formations. The process allows pipes to extend up to two miles in any direction from a well site.

While industry experts say the process is safe, reports of contaminated groundwater, increased earthquake frequency and other problems in states where fracking is already legal prompted citizens from around Illinois to organize in opposition. 

About 250 people attended the hearing on Dec. 17, according to IDNR spokesman Tim Schweizer. At least two social justice groups, Illinois Peoples’ Action and Fair Economy Illinois, bused people from Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Peoria and Champaign-Urbana to Decatur.

IPA members focused their comments mainly on what they called the “dirty dozen,” 12 of the rules they deem the worst. Speakers from the group said the rules will fail to protect the environment, leave toxic waste unmitigated and provide only token protections for residents near fracking sites. They also claimed IDNR let the oil and gas industry write the rules, pointing to certain provisions like a relatively small $50 fine for violating a certain regulation, which one speaker noted is less than the cost of a speeding ticket.

Roy Wehrle, a professor emertius of economics and public affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield and an adjunct professor of business at Millikin University in Decatur, addressed a panel of IDNR officials at the hearing, saying the regulations as proposed don’t do enough to prevent volatile organic compounds, which are substances that sublimate into the air at low temperatures, from escaping out of fracked wells and causing health problems for people nearby. He warned that Illinois could look like parts of China, where VOCs have created smog so thick that it obscures buildings.

“How serious are these volatile chemicals and compounds? The answer is they are very serious to the health of our people,” Wehrle said. “Smog causes the tissue of the lungs to disappear, to deteriorate, to decay, and the lungs are unable to repair this tissue once it is destroyed.”

Braze Smith, an environmental scientist and organic farmer from Union County in southern Illinois, said part of his job as a scientist was tracking the spread of underground toxic waste plumes. He believes the testing requirements in the proposed rules are woefully inadequate to establish useable data about whether fracking has any effect on groundwater supplies.

“What we have here now is a situation in which we’re going to inject a problem and then basically not track it,” Smith said.

Sherry Procarione of Oakley, Ill., outside of Decatur, was the only member of the public to speak in favor of fracking. Procarione is running for U.S. Senate in the upcoming 2014 election as a write-in candidate on the Republican ballot. She said fracking has happened in Illinois for about 70 years without incident. She was referring to low-volume fracking, which is far smaller in scale, uses far less water and doesn’t extend horizontally underground.

Procarione dismissed the environmental concerns of other speakers, saying the issue came down to the right of a property owner to do what they wish on their own property.

“What we need to remember is we don’t need to fix what isn’t broken,” she said. “There is no empirical or anecdotal evidence for more rules.”

After the public comment period concludes on Jan. 3, 2014, IDNR will submit its proposed rules to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative body tasked with approving regulations.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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