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Henry Henderson: No fracking in Illinois until communities are safe

Henry Henderson directs the Midwest Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a green group with 1.3 million members and advocates nationally. He was also the first Commissioner of the Environment for the city of Chicago.

It is an open secret that lawmakers, regulators, environmentalists, industry and community voices have been discussing standards to govern fracking in the shale that underlays two-thirds of Illinois.

As we ponder the standards for this controversial oil and gas drilling technique, the experiences of our neighboring states are instructive. They provide important lessons on disappointing job numbers, disruption of property interests and complications from vast amounts of dangerous waste.

Look at Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich (an enthusiastic fracking proponent) has been dismayed by how few of the direct fracking jobs are going to Ohioans. Or Pennsylvania, where the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette identified 100 aquifers contaminated by fracking waste. Or Colorado, where regulators noted with concern that fracking waste was contaminating ground water at alarming rates when spilled.

Wastewater from fracking contains a soup of nasty chemicals used in the process, with heavy metals, radioactive material and toxins released by drilling.

Clean and plentiful water is essential for Illinois agriculture, which is too important to our economy for us to make the same mistakes as our neighbors, where operators improperly store and dispose of toxic wastewater. Water problems are increased by the billions of gallons of Illinois water that will be reallocated for fracking, bringing scarcity to once water-rich areas. And remember, we are gripped by a drought already lowering water levels in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce recently released a rosy assessment of the economic impacts fracking would have here. But that report explicitly ignored the real costs of environmental impacts and threatened that no jobs would arrive if the industry was highly regulated. Dangling jobs in front of the public with an intentionally limited view of economic risks is misleading. It disguises the real costs, benefits and risks that face Illinois.

Let’s be honest: Standards and sound regulations do not cost jobs; they protect the economy, spur innovation and create manufacturing jobs. A nascent industry under significant public scrutiny, like fracking, cannot move forward if it is plagued by water and air contamination, as well as destruction of resources, property and communities. And it certainly cannot move forward at the expense of other economic sectors (and jobs) like agriculture, which rely on the water resources put at risk from a lack of proper fracking standards.

Oil and gas industry voices have taken to these opinion pages to pledge openness to regulations on the issues that have raised concern nationally: transparency about what chemicals are going into the ground, proper well construction to avoid impacts to ground and surface water, notification of fracking for property owners in the area and water testing before fracking begins so that communities can assess if drilling has had a negative impact.

These pledges are a good start. But, here again, the experience of our neighbors is informative. In Ohio, behind closed doors, industry fought tooth-and-nail against common-sense safeguards, and the only chemical disclosure industry has supported allows it sweeping ability to hide dangerous chemicals as “trade secrets” — even as the industry already enjoys unique exemptions from basic regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Unfortunately, we rarely talk of Illinois as a leader in good governance. But we have a chance to be a leader on this issue. Other states have rushed flawed rules and suffered unfortunate results as the gas boom raged. The situation is different here. If we cannot smartly agree to reasonable standards and protections for our communities, then a bill calling for a moratorium on fracking is already in place to give Illinois time to develop them.

The bill enjoys huge support in the House (with nearly 40 co-sponsors) because there is recognition that we should not start fracking in Illinois unless we know sound standards are in place that will safeguard our communities.


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