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An Open Letter to Illinois Environmentalists about Fracking Legislation

My friends,

I think so often of you all and my days as president of the Illinois Environmental Council and State Field Representative of the Sierra Club. I cherish the memories of your dedication and grace. I write to you today because I know how hard you are struggling with the thorny problem of fracking in your great prairie state.

In March, I attended a continuing legal education conference on Illinois environmental law sponsored by the Illinois Bar Association. I had hoped to see old friends and learn about environmental legal innovation. The majority of lawyers in attendance were polluters’ defense lawyers and a few agency staffers. What I discovered was that there is almost no enforcement of environmental laws in Illinois and things are getting worse. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are in a financial free fall. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was forced to cut back their financial support of Illinois EPA enforcement because of the national budget sequester, even though Illinois is one of the states most backlogged on permitting and enforcement. As you know, over the past few years environmental groups have petitioned US EPA to rescind Illinois’ authority to enforce certain delegated federal laws because they had failed to take appropriate enforcement action.

And then we heard about this new regulatory bill on fracking. I listened carefully hoping that it would actually be something new and different. But no matter how good a piece of legislation it might be (or not), regulation in Illinois will fail because there can be no enforcement. There is no money, no staff, and no political will to enforce environmental laws, even the very best of them.  By enforce I mean follow up on permit violations, issue fines, guarantee clean-up or shut down polluters.

The brilliant architect, William McDonough said that regulation is design failure. The simple fact that we consider regulating fracking recognizes that it is a polluting industry.  But Illinois has no capacity to enforce even the best legislation. None.

I ask you, on behalf of Future Generations to stand together and oppose the regulatory bill for the simple reason that it cannot be enforced.

When I worked for the Sierra Club, David Brower was the great elder of the environmental movement. He had one regret—a terrible compromise: he led the Sierra Club in sacrificing Glen Canyon in exchange for relinquishing water development at Echo Park. Glen Canyon was flooded.  But that terrible loss led them to fight dams in the Grand Canyon. Brower took out full-page ads in The New York Times asking “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”

If fracking comes to Illinois, the spills and accidents are inevitable. The law you worked so hard to craft will not be enforced. It can’t be enforced given the financial state of both federal and Illinois regulatory agencies. Future Generations will face a world even more fraught with contamination and devastation than it is now. We should learn from Brower.  Don’t compromise.

Your ally,

Carolyn Raffensperger


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