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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

Here is an update from the author:

Fracking in Illinois

Dear Friends,

I have received thoughtful responses to my “Open Letter to Illinois Environmentalists about Fracking Legislation” on May 10, 2013. Many wondered why I disagreed with some of my good friends in Illinois who are pursuing legislation that will regulate horizontal hydraulic fracking. They deserve an answer. I recognize the palpable fear that without legislation, horizontal fracking will proceed willy-nilly. I disagree with my dear friends who are working for regulation and ask them to join me in resisting this piece of legislation. I ask because:

1)    Industry needs regulations more than environmentalists do. Notice, industry didn’t oppose the legislation. “Dead Giveaway,” in the words of Charles Ramsey, Ohio hero.

2)    Illinois is part of a larger political ecology and other States’ decisions on fracking ride on what Illinois decides. If Illinois stands firm against fracking, other states gain support in their efforts to resist the degradation that has happened in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. New York and California are paying close attention to what Illinois does with this piece of legislation.

3)    The legislation instituting regulations is just the beginning of a cascade of a legislation orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry. Most future legislation will restrict right to know, landowner protections, and liability for clean air and clean water. Future legislation will piggy-back on this regulatory bill and claim additional protections for the industry on the basis of trade secrets and other things that are “necessary” for jobs and the economy.

4)    We just reached 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  We are headed towards catastrophe with our reliance on fossil fuels. We have to start somewhere and say “no”.

5)    Speaking of pollution levels, the nitrate levels in Iowa’s rivers reached an all-time high this week. Natural gas is the precursor to the fertilizers that washed off Midwest fields and create the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

6)    In the 1990’s, I was on a three person commission that was charged with deciding whether a site in Illinois was suitable for a low-level radioactive waste facility. A former Illinois Supreme Court justice, the former dean of Civil Engineering at University of Illinois, and I voted unanimously that the site was not suitable for a disposal facility. We were called baby killers, and worse, for our decision. The federal government hired Battelle Memorial Institute to investigate our decision. Eighty two million dollars had been spent on the siting process. But our decision stood. We had the best siting criteria (no shallow land burial!) and the most radioactive waste. We set a remarkable precedent by saying no. And to date, no new low-level radioactive waste facility has taken waste in the United States. Did our decision change federal policy? Sure. Was it the only thing? No. What could not have been predicted is how medical technology evolved in a very short time and reduced the total amount of low-level radioactive waste that required disposal. Medical waste had been the decoy for the nuclear power industry and all of their waste. Let me repeat, to date, no new low-level radioactive waste facility has been opened in the United States. Yes, our decision was exceptionally difficult. I thought my career was over when I voted with my two colleagues.

7)    Speaking of radioactive waste, it appears that waste from fracking is often radioactive and proving difficult to manage.

8)    Clean and abundant water is a central legacy we must leave to Future Generations. Fracking is one of the greatest threats to water in the history of humanity.

9)    Southern Illinois is earthquake prone because it is in the territory of the New Madrid fault. Earthquakes seem to be set off by fracking.

10) As I mentioned in my first letter, it is wishful thinking to depend on regulation in a state where enforcement is invisible, backlogged and impoverished.

For all of these reasons, I oppose the Illinois legislation that attempts to regulate horizontal fracking. I ask that you stand with me for the sake of the planet and future generations.

Your ally,

Carolyn Raffensperger

Also, please read & utilize these two letters from Kimberly Wasserman, Executive Director, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, 2013 Goldman Award Winner.

Fracking Bill Threatens our State and Should be Postponed

An Open Letter to House Leader Michael Madigan

Dear Representative Madigan,

I was encouraged in May to read your statements on the dangers of introducing the fracking industry to Illinois.  In the Chicago Sun-Times report on May 13, 2013 you stated “Read about what happened in Pennsylvania”, this example is exactly what we need to be doing as a State before making any decisions.  As the current legislation on fracking comes up for a vote in Springfield, I urge you to fulfill your promise of a one year moratorium on fracking and postpone the vote that could bring this disastrous industry to our state.

I would like to encourage you to once again listen to the concerns of the communities that will be directly impacted by fracking.  In southern Illinois, five counties that comprise almost 2000 square miles around the Shawnee National Forest, support a fracking moratorium.  The residents of Jackson, Union, Johnson, and Pope & Hardin share a deep concern for the health of their families and the future of their communities.

Energy companies that specialize in hydraulic fracturing have made inflated promises to communities before.  They promise jobs and a return to prosperity in places that have suffered economic decline.  In reality, they leave harmful chemicals that our injected into our sources of food, water and shelter.

While too many people in our state of Illinois, including returning veterans of war, need to get back to work, the fracking industry is not the solution.  Instead, our state should lead the nation in the development of renewable energy jobs that will strengthen our state’s economy without damaging our beautiful ecosystem.

In Little Village, I have worked diligently to ensure that our children and community members are no longer sickened by energy companies that pollute the air, water, and soil. I also share a profound respect for the needs of returning veterans as my father-in-law was a Vietnam Veteran who after serving his country worked for Amvets as a Service Officer that helped veterans apply for benefits.

I fully understand that our state faces economic challenges.  Yet, this fracking bill also means that Illinois is also at a crucial moment in its environmental history.  For far too long our environment, health and communities have been sold out for the sake of jobs. Our communities and families are then left with the legacy of those promised jobs that not only have permanently impacted our health and communities but our state’s environment. We must stop this cycle and ensure that our communities are truly invested in the process.

I call on you to stand for the communities that are demanding a Moratorium on Fracking!


Kimberly Wasserman

Executive Director, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

2013 Goldman Award Winner

May 24th, 2013

Office of the Governor

207 State House

Springfield, IL 62706

Honorable Governor Pat Quinn,

After 17 years of grassroots community organizing in the South Lawndale community and connecting Chicago neighborhoods, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is proud to represent the collective efforts of community residents, supporting organizations, recognized partners, City of Chicago and Illinois State leaders in the global stage of environmental justice.

April 15th, 2013, culminated those efforts as I accepted the 2013 Goldman Prize for North America on behalf of all fellow environmental leaders who stand for the integrity and dignity of citizens and communities, for the work in the Clean Power Coalition.  LVEJO shares this award with you, our “Green Governor”, as a recognized partner in the continuous fight for the right to green open space, parks, healthy sustainable communities, and renewable energy resources. Reform, recovery, and responsibility are what we hold our public servants accountable for.

As we prepare for our Memorial Day celebration, we unite to support Veterans for jobs with dignity that will enhance their homecoming communities, and secure the future of their children. This means supporting the Veto of S.B. 1715 and calling it out for what it is, a false solution to a larger problem. Your commitment in “creating better jobs for more people throughout Illinois” is the platform on which we stand in defining what ‘better jobs are’, and it is not the deliberate contamination of our waterways for the profit of few. The science has continually been uncertain that this method can be ‘safely regulated’. The job growth that is being negotiated should not put the health, environment and communities of our veterans at more risk.

We stand united with all Communities from Little Village to the Shawnee National Forest, to Kill Bill SB 1715 . We hope you will stand with us!


Kimberly Wasserman

LVEJO Executive Director

2013 Goldman Prize Recipient for North America

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