Illinois Newspaper Gives Up on Journalism, Bends Over for Oil & Gas Industry

WillinoisThe Southern Illinoisan has a long-running competition with the Belleville News-Democrat over which Illinois newspaper has the strongest bias in favor of the coal industry. So I was pleasantly surprised last year when I saw the Southern Illinoisan doing good reporting on the fracking issue, even giving frequent voice to the opposition. That changed.

A recent article in the Southern is so ridiculous, so over the top misleading, it looks like they’ve given up on doing real journalism about fracking.

Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE) sent out a press release last week full of facts and figures on worker safety problems in the fracking industry. Illinois’ weak fracking law doesn’t address the problem. The Southern first responded with an article that gives more space to defensive responses from industry supporters than it does to citing facts and studies. That showed bias, but you won’t believe what they published next!

The Southern ran an article titled “Fracking workers: It’s safe, it’s good” with anecdotal stories from two workers in the industry who have witnessed non-fatal accidents at fracking sites in North Dakota. There was no mention of the fact that North Dakota now has the highest rate of deadly workplace accidents, thanks largely to the fracking industry.

The article is no different than running anecdotal stories about two heavy smokers who lived past age 90 and failing to mention studies linking cigarettes to cancer. If it didn’t hurt those two it must be safe, right? It’s not journalism. It’s propaganda.

Maybe tomorrow the Southern will feature an article about two people who haven’t been in deadly traffic accidents, so clearly all roads must be perfectly safe! Don’t worry about those pesky rumors and studies on how many people die in auto accidents each year.

The Southern published good coverage of issues related to fracking for a while. I’ve watched as their bias has grown more obvious. When hundreds of people attended the two southern Illinois public hearings on fracking, they scrubbed any mention of the repeated calls by multiple members of the public for non-violent civil disobedience to stop the industry. When Josh Fox spoke to a crowd of over 600 locals, they did no follow-up story at all. Continue reading Illinois Newspaper Gives Up on Journalism, Bends Over for Oil & Gas Industry

How Much Fracking Will Remain Unregulated in Illinois?

WillinoisFracking has begun in Illinois. Governor Pat Quinn’s Department of Natural Resources issued a permit for a test well at a site where oil fracking is planned. The well isn’t subject to Illinois fracking rules due to loopholes in the law passed last year.

By utilizing methods that require a lower volume of water, and exploiting other loopholes, oil frackers can avoid new regulation. As Illinois State University emeritus professor William Rau writes, that will deny the state tax revenue from those operations, along with other consequences.

Public notice requirements, baseline water testing, insurance provisions, modest environmental protections and setbacks, earthquake mitigation, bans on open pit storage of frack waste water, etc., are all gone. Illinois will become the wild and woolly west of fracking.

The public doesn’t yet know how much horizontal fracking will occur outside compliance with the law. Illinois residents are facing a major public safety crisis and state politicians don’t seem to notice.

Opposition continues as people learn more about the inadequacy of a law that was written behind closed doors and rushed through the legislature with very little public scrutiny. A recent day of action saw citizens in Chicago and southern Illinois bring accountability to those responsible for the dangerously weak fracking law.

“For sale” signs were placed at the campaign office of state representative Mike Bost, who co-sponsored the law while claiming it would “keep our air clean, protect our water supply and maintain our environment.” In fact, the law contains no provisions to limit toxic air emissions that harm the health of those living nearby.

Bost is running for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ 12th district. Like many legislators, he mistakenly believed the fracking law was a consensus issue. Now, he’s confronted with the reality of people in his district outraged at seeing the law-making and rule-making process up for sale to the oil and gas industry. Continue reading How Much Fracking Will Remain Unregulated in Illinois?

Illinois Mine Safety Head Took Thousands in Campaign Contributions from Coal Baron Chris Cline

WillinoisTony Mayville is a candidate for State Representative in southern Illinois and Chairman of the Washington County Democratic Party. He has also supervised the Mine Safety Division and served as acting director of Mines and Minerals at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Over several years, including time while Mayville was responsible for regulating Illinois coal mines, he collected thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies owned by billionaire coal mine operator Chris Cline. In November 2013 a fatal accident occurred at a coal mine owned by Chris Cline and regulated by Tony Mayville.

Mayville chairs the political fund of the Washington County Democratic Party Central Committee. Their campaign finance reports show the committee raising thousands of dollars from multiple companies owned by the Cline Group at least since 2008 through 2013.

Several contributions were from Cline subsidiary Hillsboro Energy. They gave Mayville’s Washington County Democratic fund $1,000 in 2008, $500 in 2010, and another $1,000 in 2011. During that time, the company was seeking a permit from the Department of Natural Resources for the Deer Run longwall mine. Mayville was already collecting coal industry campaign contributions when Governor Pat Quinn made him acting director of the Office of Mines and Minerals, where he would oversee the mine permitting process.

Similarly, Mayville’s Washington County committee took $500 from Macoupin Energy LLC, another Cline subsidiary seeking a new mine permit.

More recently, Cline-owned Foresight Energy donated $1,000 in 2012 to the party committee, and another $2,000 to Mayville’s state representative campaign fund in March of 2013. Foresight Energy’s donation to Mayville’s campaign attracted negative attention, so last week his campaign sent a letter to the state board of elections claiming it was accepted by accident. He transferred the contribution to the Washington county party committee he chairs. The distinction may be legally significant, but regardless of which of his committees he used, Mayville accepted campaign contributions from coal mine owners while overseeing mine safety at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

This obvious conflict of interest highlights the notoriously cozy relationship between the Illinois Office of Mines and Minerals and industries they’re charged with regulating. Citizens have had to fight foolish coal mines permits granted by an agency with employees collecting political donations from mine owners. The fatal accident last November at a mine owned by Chris Cline is a tragic reminder that regulation of the coal industry is literally a life and death issue. Continue reading Illinois Mine Safety Head Took Thousands in Campaign Contributions from Coal Baron Chris Cline

Video: Why Illinois Regulators Won't Make Fracking Safe

WillinoisA disturbing new video of poisoned water, leaking oil rigs, and lax enforcement at Illinois oil wells highlights why proposed fracking regulation won’t protect the state’s environment or people. The Greenpeace interview with a southern Illinois native and former oil worker shows a fracking test well in a neglected part of the state where weak enforcement at existing wells is already endangering the public.

Illinois’ new fracking law provides funding for the Office of Mines and Minerals to hire new staff. But, that would only be a solution if lack of staffing were the primary problem. Governor Pat Quinn has refused to clean house and restructure an agency notoriously cozy with industry.

The rules proposed for fracking are a sign the agency intends to continue the same old culture of weak enforcement that allows companies to pay meaningless fines while continuing to operate. Proposed fines from $50 to a few thousand dollars are pocket change, and even those can be waived at the agency’s discretion. Companies with hundreds of past violations may receive permits for new wells, as we’ve already seen with OMM’s poor oversight of coal mines. Continue reading Video: Why Illinois Regulators Won’t Make Fracking Safe

Will Illinois Ban Fracking After Disaster Strikes Or Before?

WillinoisAn Illinois ban on fracking is inevitable. The question is whether it will happen before or after a major fracking disaster.

The public comment period on Illinois’ draft regulations ended January 3 with groups in potentially impacted areas repeating their call for a ban on fracking. A group of southern Illinois residents representing several grassroots groups drove to Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Springfield to join with Frack Free Illinois in delivering comments on the regulation and a petition asking Governor Quinn to oversee a rewrite.

Tabitha Tripp, of Anna-Jonesboro, said in a statement, “these inadequate rules will leave nothing but legacies of disasters to those who voted on this irresponsible law and abandon Illinois tax payers who will indeed foot the bill for public health issues like cancer and leukemia.”

The regulation will likely be improved before being presented to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for final approval. Even groups who supported the law are objecting to the Department of Natural Resources’ flaccid follow up. A few politicians will claim a victory for the environment after DNR makes marginal changes. But, the real weakness in the rules follows from the inadequacy of the law itself.

The law does not address the consequences of a tornado hitting a fracking site. It does not resolve the release of chemicals in a major flood, despite the fact that fracking will likely happen in floodplains of a region bordered by two of the highest volume rivers in America. The law provides for monitoring, but not preventing, fracking induced earthquakes despite the fact that it’s expected along major fault lines. If a large groundwater source, such as the Mahomet aquifer, is depleted or contaminated it could impact the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people.

A long list of other omissions in the law may be less dramatic but will be just as dangerous. For example, there’s no provision for monitoring air emissions at fracking sites, which a University of Colorado study linked to chronic health problems for those living nearby. DNR is allowed to waive fines that are already too low, and issue new permits to repeat offenders.

When pushing for the law, Governor Quinn claimed it will protect the environment. That was a lie. Continue reading Will Illinois Ban Fracking After Disaster Strikes Or Before?

Republicans Revive EPA Tractor Dust Conspiracy Theory to Gut Environmental Protections

WillinoisThe EPA wants to regulate tractor dust. Can you believe that? It’s getting to the point where a man can’t even drive his tractor down a dirt road without big government getting in the way!

That’s what Congressman Rodney Davis wants you to believe anyway. It’s a good soundbite and the fact that it’s complete nonsense hasn’t stopped some politicians from peddling this conspiracy theory no matter how many times it’s debunked.

Davis sponsored an amendment to let the Department of Agriculture comment on EPA regulation. In speeches and press statements, he argued that EPA is out of touch with rural America by reviving the old yarn that they want to regulate tractor dust on dirt roads.

Congressman John Shimkus was telling this dusty story back when Rodney Davis was still on his staff. Since then, the EPA administrator has said several times that there’s no plan to consider regulating tractor dust, and multiple news organizations have debunked the talking point. At this point it should be absolutely clear to everyone that it simply isn’t true.

Undeterred by reality, there’s even a bill called the “Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act.” What it actually does is prevent EPA from enacting regulations of soot and particulate matter that are only applied to major sources of industrial pollution, not farms. These are pollutants, often from coal power plants, that cause lung disease, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and other deadly health problems.

In other words, this has nothing to do with protecting rural America. Politicians who talk about tractor dust regulation want rural Americans to fight for the coal industry’s right to kill them a little faster. Continue reading Republicans Revive EPA Tractor Dust Conspiracy Theory to Gut Environmental Protections

National spotlight on Illinois fracking fight as citizens push for moratorium

The passionate push to save Illinois from poorly regulated fracking continued at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Internationally recognized ecologist and Living Downstream author Sandra Steingraber made a return trip to her native central Illinois to support the push for a public, science-based examination of fracking.

After meeting with an aide to Governor Pat Quinn who worked on the inadequate fracking regulatory bill, Sandra Steingraber and author Jeff Biggers spoke to Illinois residents feverishly pushing for a moratorium on fracking during the final days of the legislative session.

Sandra Steingraber referenced several recent scientific studies, and others which will soon be published, about the deadly public health and environmental consequences of fracking. The studies tackle issues that haven’t been discussed in public hearings because the legislature waited until the final weeks of their session to rush through a regulatory bill negotiated in private.

 

Steingraber noted that Natural Resources Defense Council has used the anecdote of a single fracking well operating in Illinois as an argument for passing a pro-fracking regulatory bill. She called the news a distraction and responded, “from my perspective, that’s like discovering a rapist in the community and deciding that we need a law mandating that all those planning to commit sexual assault must wear condoms.”

After speeches from Steingraber, Jeff Biggers, southern Illinois resident Tabitha Tripp, and Springfield resident Melody Lamar, a group of those lobbying and sitting-in for a fracking moratorium marched to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office for an animated discussion with members of her staff who negotiated the regulatory compromise. The group delivered letters from Pennsylvania residents about the devastating harm done to their state, despite claims that regulation would protect them. Continue reading National spotlight on Illinois fracking fight as citizens push for moratorium

Interview with second citizen arrested for demanding fracking meeting with Governor Quinn

A second person in two days has been arrested for demanding that Governor Pat Quinn meet with citizens about proposed fracking legislation. Southern Illinois resident Dayna Conner was arrested for refusing to leave the Capitol building Wednesday after two days of waiting outside his office with others who want a meeting.

Governor Quinn and members of the legislature brag about the fracking bill being negotiated with lobbyists from multiple interests groups. It’s how controversial issues are often dealt with in state government. Legislators vote after lobbyists from all sides emerge from a back room with a deal. Fracking negotiations were done behind closed doors by invitation only.

This time, citizens aren’t standing for it. Residents in fracking regions like Dayna Conner are demanding that they have a voice in a public process.

I spoke with Dayna earlier Wednesday outside the Governor’s office while she waited for a meeting. Here’s a short clip of why she felt her arrest was necessary.

She believes that citizens in regions threatened by fracking and grassroots activists haven’t been heard by the Governor and his coalition of lobbyists. After 18 months of citizens requesting a meeting, she says the Governor is siding with industry over residents in fracking regions.

After the bill regulating fracking passed the House Executive Committee, opponents told me they felt ignored and dismissed by their elected officials. Southern Illinois was represented in negotiations by the bill’s main sponsor, Representative John Bradley. He spoke about how much he cares for water quality in his area, but after taking thousands in campaign donations from fracking interests, he has zero credibility.

Opponents of the bill have many reasons for believing it’s inadequate. My biggest concern is that all permit applications must be approved or denied within 60 days. Thousands of permit applications are expected in a short period of time. They’ll be processed by a badly understaffed and underfunded Department of Natural Resources that already fails to adequately enforce existing regulation. Continue reading Interview with second citizen arrested for demanding fracking meeting with Illinois Governor

Illinois Congressional delegation gets greener while Aaron Schock ranks dirtiest

The League of Conservation Voters released their 2012 scorecard, and it shows that the Illinois Congressional delegation is much greener today than it was last year. Most of those who had the worst environmental voting records were defeated in the 2012 election. One exception, who scored lowest of them all, wants to run for Governor.

Notoriously anti-environment, anti-science Congressmen like Bobby Schilling, Joe Walsh, and Don Manzullo (who all scored 6%) were defeated in the recent election, thanks in part to newly drawn districts.

The lowest scoring Democrat was Jerry Costello, who retired. We can hope for a better record from his replacement, Democrat Bill Enyart, but his pandering to the coal industry is discouraging. You would think more Southern Illinois politicians would have noticed that a coal-based economy has never brought stable prosperity to the region before, and it isn’t going to suddenly start now.

Two members of the Illinois delegation scored 100%! Northside Chicago Congressman Mike Quigley and my favorite Senator, Dick Durbin.

One Congressman holds the dubious distinction of earning 3%, the lowest ranking in Illinois: Aaron Schock. That surprised me because he ran for Congress as a pro-environment moderate. I thought he might have a record similar to Republican Tim Johnson, who at least scored 60%. It takes effort to have an even lower score than a climate-change denying zealot like John Shimkus.

Campaign ads during his first race for Congress featured him in front of wind turbines promoting alternative energy. He gave lip service to clean energy, but voted for large coal and oil subsidies. Continue reading Illinois Congressional delegation gets greener while Aaron Schock ranks dirtiest

Help me, EPA, you're my only hope!

I was disappointed during the election when many environmental writers downplayed the role of Environmental Protection Agency regulation on coal. It was a timid response to the “war on coal” hype.

Sure, there’s not exactly a war on coal. There’s a war to save modern civilization as we know it from climate change disasters. The coal industry just happens to be on the pro-ending-modern-civilization side.

The argument downplaying EPA action bothered me. First, because I think it was somewhat disingenuous. You can’t honestly go from bragging one week about how many proposed coal plants activists have stopped, often by using EPA regulation as a tool, and the next week pretending the movement doesn’t exist. It’s the kind of defensive, weak-kneed messaging that gives tree-huggers and liberals a bad reputation. The low price of natural gas may be the bigger factor in determining the future of coal, but compliance with regulation is an important part of the cost/benefit analysis companies do when making decisions about building or retiring coal plants.

That rhetorical retreat was troubling because EPA may be our last best hope of dealing with carbon pollution during the next 2-4 years. The climate change movement will be forced to rediscover their conviction to cheer EPA action as a positive.

It’s not hard to see why. The House is still controlled by a Republican majority in the pockets of oil and coal. Even though most of them campaigned on being bipartisan, they made similar promises in 2008. We saw how that turned out.

The Senate has a small Democratic majority, but the Democratic caucus still includes fossil fuel Senators like Mary Landrieu and Joe Manchin. Plus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems uninterested in exposing oil and coal Democrats to controversial votes. He refused to bring cap-and-trade to the floor two years ago because it didn’t have 60 votes to pass, but then allowed three failed votes on stripping EPA authority to limit carbon emissions.

So, a big legislative solution like cap-and-trade is about as realistic as “clean coal.” I’ve seen suggestions about a carbon tax. As much as Congressional Republicans hate the idea of any tax increase, I can only imagine the category 5 hissy fit they would throw over a tax increase to deal with a problem they won’t even admit exists. I’d be happy to see someone try, but I won’t hold my breath.

What I’ll hold out small hope for in Congress is another jobs bill focused on energy efficiency, improving the grid, and promoting renewables. That was the best part of the stimulus bill, and we need another big round of green jobs spending in term II. Preferably, they should target spending in coal regions to offset job losses.

Help Me EPAThat leaves us with the authority a previous, more functional Congress already granted EPA to limit air pollutants. Obama moved forward with expanded EPA protections after Congress failed to act during his first two years in office. Some regulations have been stalled, like CSAPR. That needs to be completed along with better rules on mountaintop removal, coal ash, and air emissions like carbon.

My number one hope for Obama’s second term is that he moves forward much more aggressively with EPA limits on deadly coal pollution. Continue reading Help me, EPA, you’re my only hope!