Take a stand on fracking regulations

By STATE REP. BARBARA FLYNN CURRIE (D-25)

With the support of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental advocates, the General Assembly approved and Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation last spring to regulate fracking operations in downstate Illinois. Hydraulic fracking differs from traditional methods of mining underground gas and oil as its approach is horizontal, not vertical.

The legislation was widely touted as the strongest fracking law in the country. The measure required significant disclosure of fracking chemicals, substantial opportunities for public participation and serious health protections regarding the disposal of wastewater and other byproducts of the fracking enterprise.

The state Department of Natural Resources, charged with responsibility for overseeing permitting and enforcement, recently released a draft of the regulations intended to implement the law and add meat to the legislative bones.

The environmental community is up in arms. The proposed rules at times seem to violate the clear language of the statute; at other times they violate its spirit.

The legislation says the department shall disclose information about released chemicals in the event of a health emergency. But the proposed rules say instead that the department “may” make public that information — and the public may call for information only Monday through Friday between the hours of nine and five. Is it somewhere written that accidental emissions of dangerous chemicals only happen on weekdays?

The statute provides that wastewater should be stored in tanks. Sensibly, it makes allowance for times when an unforeseeable overflow might require excess wastewater to be stored, temporarily, in pits. But the emphasis is on the word temporary: wastewater stored in the open leaches into groundwater, and the longer it sits in the open, the greater the risk of contamination. That’s why the statute specifies that wastewater stored in temporary pits must be removed within seven days. But the proposed rules risk making the temporary escape valve into a permanent loophole, as they don’t require the operator to install tanks large enough to hold the estimated waste and allow the overflow to sit in the pits not just for seven days, but for seven days after the the frack is completed.

There are other problems and inconsistencies in the proposed rules. The legislative intent was to apply the statute to fracking operations already in place, not just, as the rules provide, to those begun after the legislature acted. The statute assigns to the frack operators presumed liability for the release of dangerous contaminants, but the proposed rules severely limit which contaminants make the list. As well, the proposed rules would give operators significant leeway to modify their permit applications without public scrutiny.

The department plans two public hearings on the proposed rules. A Chicago hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 26, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the University of Illinois (UIC), 726 Halsted St., Student Center East, room 302. Electronic comments can be submitted using the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/nsusbmm. Or send written comments to Robert G. Mool, Department of Natural Resources, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, Ill., 62702-1271.

Encourage the Department — and the governor — to adopt rules that will provide adequate protection for the health and safety of the public. Let the department know that anything less will not do.