Saline County citizens concerned about fracking legislation

By Sharon Wittke

Citizens from several southern Illinois counties gathered Sunday at Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship to hear about pending environmental legislation in Illinois.

Brian Sauder, outreach and policy coordinator for the environmental advocacy organization, Faith in Place, informed the group about Illinois House Bill 3897, which, if passed, would require a disclosure of chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, would require drilling operators to test the integrity of the well casing prior to drilling and would also require waste water to be stored in lined pits.


Homeowners would also be able to hold the energy company accountable if drinking water was contaminated due to hydraulic fracturing.

Faith in Place sponsored the workshop to promote awareness of upcoming environmental legislation in the Illinois General Assembly.

Everyone of the around 30 who attended the workshop said they did not support hydraulic fracturing operations in Saline County.

Sauder also talked about the basics of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”  Natural gas companies use fracking to release the natural gas trapped in subterranean shale formations by blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals into drilled wells.

Some Saline County citizens are concerned fracking may be used in their county as early as June.

Sauder said natural gas companies have used fracking for decades to reach the trapped gas, but it was not in widespread use until 2000. Since 2003, new technology has allowed natural gas companies to drill horizontally and reach more areas of untapped areas of gas in the shale formation.

First, the operator drills a well, then removes the drill bit. Then the operator inserts a perforating gun that shoots darts into the well, causing mini-fractures, or fissures in the shale. After that, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped at a high rate of pressure into the well. The sand blasts against and widens the mini-fractures.


The water and chemicals are carried back to the surface for disposal or treatment and re-use. The sand particles, lubricated by the chemical, are left in place to wedge open the cracks and allow the gas to flow easily.

By using the newer horizontal drilling method of fracking, the operator can tap into multiple pockets of gas from a single drilling, increasing the well’s productivity.

Sauder said the high-pressure technology used today increases the risk of chemical seepage through weakened fissures, or cracks,  into the surrounding groundwater.

He said another big concern is what happens to the water and chemical mix when it’s brought back to the surface.

Sauder said the chemicals — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, called BTEX compounds — are carcinogens used in diesel fuel.

“The problem is that even if the hydraulic fracturing is done in a way that no ground water from the homeowner who leases his land gets contaminated, you’re still left with over seven million gallons of tainted waste water that something has to be done with,” he said.

Sauder said wastewater is disposed of in several different ways. It can be sent to water treatment plants or stored in deep wells.

“Sometimes they put it in ponds and shoot it up into the air to aerate it. Then the chemicals get into the air,” he said.

Sam Stearns, public education coordinator for Friends of Bell Smith Springs, a nonprofit citizens’ group that promotes natural conservation, and his wife, Geneil Stearns, both Saline County residents, came from Stonefort to the workshop.

“It’s heartbreaking to see fracking coming into Saline County,” Geneil Stearns said.

Sam Stearns said he thinks Saline County landowners weren’t getting enough information about groundwater contamination and earthquake swarms associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Earthquake swarms are geologic events when many earthquakes occur in a localized area during a relatively short time period. In recent years, earthquake swarms have been reported near hydraulic fracturing operations in Ohio, Arkansas and England.

Next Energy and Range Resources, two companies that acquire mineral rights from property owners and then lease those rights to energy companies such as Chevron, conducted business in Saline County in 2011, Stearns said.

“Some folks in this area were happy to get some money from signing leases,” he said.

Stearns said he didn’t know which energy company would be producing the gas.

Representatives from Next Energy, Range Resources and Chevron could not be reached for comment.

Sauder also talked about the complex legislative process required to enact laws and said he helps citizens concerned about environmental issues navigate the legislative system. He said because legislation affects all Illinois citizens, elected officials carefully oversee progress on bills they introduce.

“The process is designed to be intentionally cumbersome,” he said.

Sauder said it could be difficult to get bills passed during the current election year because incumbents for office may be reluctant to vote on tough issues.

Cassie Vestal, of Herrin, who attended the workshop, said she grew up in Harrisburg and has family living in the area that would be affected by hydraulic fracturing.

“In my opinion, most of the people in Saline County don’t know what’s going on. There wasn’t much in the news about this,” she said.