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Winkeler: It’s not worth gambling away our water supply, health

The Southern April 26, 2013 5:30 am  •  BY LES WINKELER, The Southern

There was a time it was trendy, almost sexy, to be an environmentalist.

Ironically, it was two of the movement’s greatest victories — The Clean Water Act and The Clean Air Act — that helped reverse the trend.

In the early 1970s, the assault on the environment was palpable. Emmissions from automobiles and factory smokestacks choked our air. Phosphates and nitrates poured into the Great Lakes, creating oxygen depleting algae blooms that decimated fish populations.

And, perhaps the real linchpin, the indiscriminate use of DDT nearly caused the bald eagle to go extinct.

The new laws had a gradual, but profound, impact.

Air quality improved. Smallmouth bass and walleye populations thrived as ecological balance was restored to the Great Lakes. Finally, the bald eagle returned. It is not uncommon to see a bald eagle in Southern Illinois, even during the summer months.

My personal barometer is the eastern bluebird. Like eagles, the bluebird population was decimated by DDT. Bluebirds virtually disappeared from this part of the country during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now, they are common.

Unfortunately, complacency gradually replaced activism, which in turn gave way to contempt.

Thanks to Rush Limbaugh and his acolytes, you rarely hear the word environmentalist without “whacko” as its suffix.

In today’s society and economy, anyone with environmental beliefs is portrayed as obstructionist and anti-progress. The current fracking debate is a prime example.

Jobs are all that matters today, costs be damned. And, past history indicates that most jobs will not go to locals. Despite the dubious jobs claims, most of our local politicians are onboard with fracking, even to the point of deception.

The latest example is Rep. John Shimkus’ column on fracking that appeared in this newspaper Tuesday.

Rep. Shimkus column was built around this point: “Fracking as it has become known is an oil and gas drilling technique that has been used for decades, including here in Illinois.”

That statement is true only in a semantic sense.

Vertical fracking has been used for oil extraction since about 1947. That practice is radically different than the horizontal “slickwater” fracking process that is used to extract natural gas from shale. The “slickwater” fracking technique wasn’t developed until 1996.

The “slickwater” technique involves injecting water, sand and a chemical cocktail horizontally through shale for distances of up to almost two miles. The capacity for error is obviously greater than injecting a saline solution straight down.

To downplay, or purposely ignore, the difference between the two techniques, that’s as unconscionable as a doctor prescribing a powerful drug without warning of the side effects.

Rep. Shimkus wrote that fracking should be regulated … well, we can agree on that.

I’m just not sure that regulation will do any good until a benign “slickwater” fracking fluid can be developed. North Dakota’s shale fields are currently being exploited for natural gas. One four-county region of North Dakota has 10,000 wells.

What are the chances of no accidents occurring, even under the tightest of regulations?

I’m not much of a poker player, but that sounds a lot like drawing to an inside straight with our water supply and our health on the table.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088.


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