The fracking rush in the heartland may have been unleashed by ill-conceived regulatory measures last month, but frontline organizations and citizen groups in southern Illinois are not throwing in the towel—or even taking vacations this summer.
Welcome to Fracking Independence Days.
One of the most effective and outspoken citizen groups on the frontlines in the region, SAFE—Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, has embarked on an ambitious plan to meet the frackers head on.
“SAFE has a major role in not only fighting for a healthy clean environment,” SAFE activist Tabitha Smith Tripp told me, “but also that of re-educating people of their basic rights and how to interact with our government at even the local level.”
SAFE plans to follow up its nearly two-year volunteer grassroots campaign and post-regulatory fracking manifesto, incorporate as a 501c3 non-profit and broaden its alliances with other extraction-impacted communities. SAFE plans to educate property owners and rural citizens on community rights as well as the short and long term risks of fracking. They plan to take the lead in monitoring water and air permits and activities, initiate legal challenges and defend its communities, Shawnee National Forests and watersheds from out-of-state fracking companies.
In essence: All that’s necessary to ensure fracking-free independence in southern Illinois.
And to this end, with an unprecedented fracking rush on their doorsteps, effective frontline groups like SAFE needs support—funding, legal assistance and national backing. Now. This summer. This fall. Long-term.
Deeply rooted residents in southern Illinois are no strangers to the recklessness and devastation of extraction industries: absentee coal companies have left the region in ruin for decades, with more than 1,300 abandoned and toxic mines, destroyed farms, forests and hundreds of miles of now contaminated waterways; an oil rush in the 1940-50s left behind tens of thousands of abandoned toxic wells; and unchecked logging resulted in deforestation and erosion in the state’s unique Shawnee National Forest.
Enough, says SAFE.
The days of extraction mayhem are over. For the first time in decades, with generations of experience, southern Illinois has seen an emergence of citizen groups willing to take on fracking, big coal and reckless logging operations, and are now calling for a new movement to transition to clean energy manufacturing and development, community rights and water and forest protection.
I did an interview with Tabitha Smith Tripp, who has taken a leadership role in SAFE and frontline-based anti-fracking activism on a national level. Tripp also played a key role in the recent legislative battle in Illinois to pass a moratorium instead of flawed fracking regulations. Full transcription of the interview is below.
Jeff Biggers: Describe SAFE and its role in advocating for a frack-free Illinois, and its relationship with other citizens groups and environmental organizations.
Tabitha Smith Tripp: Our mission is to ban fracking in Southern Illinois, most urgently horizontal fracking, until such a time as any extraction method presents no risk to our land, air or water. To fulfill our needs for energy, employment and habitation, this implies the need to develop non-polluting technologies which do not threaten our soil, air or water.
Our struggle is against a long-standing trend to intimidate and separate residents and communities from each other, which is antithetical to the basic concepts of democracy. If we are to succeed in protecting both our resources and our communities, we must re-establish and protect our human rights as granted by the Constitutions of the U.S. and the State of Illinois, and to fulfill our human duty to protect the soil, water, air, wildlife and human beings so that we might prosper, and that we might be good stewards of these resources. In our efforts to ban fracking, it is also our mission to awaken a community spirit among the people of Southern Illinois and create a popular movement that educates people to their rights and mobilizes them to act in the protection of these rights.
SAFE is (or will be soon) a not-for-profit 501c3 charitable organization, operating independently of other groups but in conjunction with those organizations or citizen groups who also choose to work boldly toward a ban on fracking.
Biggers: What are SAFE’s main immediate needs, in terms of funding, office space, outreach and wider support?
Tripp: The movement is in a new phase. I can only presume to guess that a full time and a part time staffed position are needed, as well as retaining an attorney for many of the legal concerns raised on a daily basis.
All the things that go into an office…rent utilities, phone, copier, paper, print cartridges, tp etc. I would need more time to research the approximate figure for the basics
Travel expenses: it is three hours north to the thick of the New Albany shale—a tank of gas and 360 miles—if we have volunteer groups willing to do water testing of surface water we should be willing to compensate mileage at what cost I don’t know, but if SAFE gets a 501c3 then what SAFE can’t cover would then be a tax deduction.
Fracking poses a risk to the commons; air and water. Rural Illinois citizens need to have access to funds to have their water tested for specific chemicals that will provide the water well owner burden of proof evidence should there be contamination of a well. Currently the law does not test residents out side of a 1500′ radius of the well bore and the well may extend up to a mile or more—it has been suggested that anyone within one kilometer of the well bore in any direction should have their well tested.
A basic pre-frack test is about $400. SAFE would like to have a fund to help families in need who would like testing but other wise can’t afford it. If nothing else a Illinois tax credit when using a certified lab.
Air monitoring devices—radioactivity monitoring devices for alpha and gamma particle, water testing at a certified lab is minimum of $400 each. The needs of this movement are vast.
Biggers: Illinois is once again in the mist of an incredible coal mining rush—with a nearly 25 percent increase in the last year, and a five-fold increase in coal exports. Should frontline anti-fracking and coal mining groups be working together to deal with the extraction rush, and do you think groups like SAFE also need to be discussing “transition” efforts to clean energy production?
Tripp: The extraction industries are a perpetual boom bust cycle that has plagued Southern Illinois for as long as it has been inhabited by Europeans. Whether it was salt mining, logging, the various forms of coal removal, conventional oil drilling or hydro-carbon extraction via high volume high pressure horizontal fracturing, it perpetuates a mentality of victimization and enables rural communities to remain in a state of helplessness, instead of learning healthy means of sustainability via alternate means of commerce.
SAFE would gladly welcome conversations and the opportunity to create a regional planning group focused on transitional and long term strategies for maintaining a local economy based on sustainability and clean energy methods.
We plan for our children’s education, we buy life insurance just in case—so they are “taken care of” in the event of an untimely death, but I find it ironic that when we talk to our elected officials about how to insure a healthy environment for our children’s future, it falls on deaf ears. There is no contingency plan.
I mentioned this idea to the Sierra Club: I wanted to be part of the 2050 club—the planning committee for the future, to anticipate 40 years down the road what our children can expect, to mitigate the pollution in terms of generation instead of elections—well you know what happened: I was told good luck getting members and laughed at.
If we could work together with other anti extraction groups in southern Illinois, what would that look like? At one point, we considered going to friends in coal mining to wage a bet—but that’s like selling your soul to the devil.
Based on the latest research for coal in Illinois—it’s costing taxpayers $20 million annually—what will the cumulative cost of fracking burden our children with? By taking back our communities from corporations and their subsequent greed, creating allies in similar pro-environmental groups, we could shift the tides, make use of shared resources and educate more rural areas to the propaganda and fallacies that spread virally in the words “jobs, economic boost, economic stimulation, etc.”
Biggers: With the new fracking regulatory rules on the books in Illinois, what do you see as the main priorities for SAFE and impacted residents in southern Illinois this summer and fall?
Tripp: SAFE’s primary goal is to continue to educate property owners and rural citizens on the short and long term risk of fracking. We value our constitutional right, IL Article XI, to a healthy environment. SAFE will continue to support a moratorium and work towards a ban. Another of SAFE’s primary goals is litigation at the state level based upon the right to a healthy environment. SAFE would also like to help counties and local governments put ordinances in place that protect the communities from the abuse of industry
As far as what the public can be doing to prepare and SAFE will be assisting with these as much as possible as a resource to IL residents:
—Every one should be taking before pictures, to document what your communities look like before frackers come to town. Document what the roads look like, the lack of light in the evening in rural settings. Make recordings of the sound of nature in communities and rural settings.
—Test for radioactivity—I laughed about this at first, but hey if there is no “before” you can’t prove it after—and by after it may be ten years from now that all your neighbors end up with breast cancer and you can say well back then….and now there is “x” in the air or water.
—The water testing is a big one.
—Counties have the right to enact road restrictions, sound ordinances, light ordinances (fracking rigs operate day and night, trucks don’t stop delivering fuel, water or chemicals) Surface owners need to be educated about their rights with regard to forced pooling and forced integration.
—Did I say water testing yet? I really can’t express the importance of this enough. Another issue that I hadn’t thought of was having the flow rate testing and documented. As we have seen in other states, like Colorado and even in place like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and most recently Michigan, water sources will be depleted, especially in times of drought. Measuring the flow rate of water wells will grant the home owner some validity when a well goes dry and a complaint is made to the state and consequentially in litigation. Once a property has been depleted of a water source the property value then decreases considerably making the home less salable and desirable.
—Get a current appraisal or updated tax assessing. It could be that the value of your real estate drops due to one of the side effects of fracking—dry well, pollution, air quality, road spill…..
—Blood testing for chemicals frequently found near fracking sites.
—Are local EMT and first responders equipped to handle an emergency, know who to call in the event of a spill—that 1-800 number should be plastered in every news paper throughout Southern Illinois.
—Citizens need to know how to object to a permit. SAFE at this time does not have the staff or the resources to fight each and every permit that comes through. We highly encourage everyone to participate in the process of public hearings as it is our only means of democracy at this point in the industry’s game. They will need experts and current research, attorneys to work pro-bono or reduced rates…there is much work to be done, and SAFE needs staff and resources to be the most beneficial for this movement.
Biggers: Mainstream environmental groups based far from fracking operations are now raising funds to monitor fracking operations, and continue frack-free advocacy outreach. Do you think funders, such as foundations, need to put more money into grassroots and impacted frontline movements like SAFE?
Tripp: The extreme diversity of Illinois, whether it is the imbalance of population or the cultural differences, climate or varied topography from one end of the state to the other make outreach and education throughout the targeted fracking zone an issue. Rural organizing and movement building in the back roads of deep southern Illinois is a arduous and fiscally demanding task. Grassroots activist do what they do because most often it is their community at risk.
Covering the expenses of devoted volunteers for simple things like fuel and mileage for educating citizens about water testing or document printing, or sharing a question and answer meeting with concerned property owners, is something we can’t offer currently, SAFE feels that may be one of the ways to boost volunteers help by covering legitimate expenses.
Attorney who have graciously and selflessly helped SAFE with legal documents and advice have “real” jobs. Legal advice and assistance is necessary for SAFE to continue to be effective and informative to citizens in southern Illinois, we would like to be able to retain an attorney. All these are “things” that big national organizations already have due to the multiple issue they are involved in.
SAFE is in the thick of it all, at the fore front of the fight, resources are sparse and the work load is heavy. Funding would help immensely.
Biggers: Despite various concerns over loopholes and enforcement, the fracking regs recently passed in Illinois thanks to the support small cadre of non-impacted environmental groups based in Chicago, Springfield, and Urbana. Do you feel frontline citizen groups like SAFE have been left out of the larger fracking discussion in Springfield (and Washington, DC), and if so, what role should they play in the future?
Tripp: There are select few making decisions for a great many folks. It’s happening in Illinois, it’s happening in DC. This is no surprise. SAFE was left out, we had no representation from southern Illinois except for Rep. Bradley (D-IL) who was the sponsor of regulatory bill.
What role do grassroots groups play in the future of policy making? (My attitude is one of disgust and dismay.) In my news feeds on line, I see all kinds of grassroots efforts to initiate change in the system and the powers that be. I see protest and uprisings, I see indigenous groups holding back trains and tents in New York city parks, but I see a great majority of people who have been oppressed long enough and often enough that disempowerment has rooted itself like mustard grass here in the Prairie state. SAFE has a major role in not only fighting for a healthy clean environment, but also that of re-educating people of their basic rights and how to interact with our government at even the local level.
So many people, myself included, have never been to a county board meeting, sat in week after week, to press upon an issue dear to their heart.
Giving people the courage, the tools and the knowledge to impress upon elected officials that change is needed to insure a stable and sustainable future for the next generation is a positive role that SAFE and any other grassroots can model.
Biggers: How did you get involved with SAFE?
Tripp: A friend sent me a movie link about fracking, it was Gasland. I was in tears while I watched it, appalled and speechless. I thought “what are we doing to our children?” I have two young kids, we live on a fourth generation family farm with a well, and it’s really good water. I had hoped that my kids would have a small lot next door and make themselves the fifth generation on the farm. But without clean water, there is no reason to stay.
I began to research the chemicals, the pollution, the waste disposal methods, the derailing of democracy in small communities where fracking had occurred, met people who had lost their water to vertical “conventional” fracking. This isn’t an issue that was going away without a fight.
One of the most astonishing facts I learned was 85 percent of Illinois would be at severe to moderate risk for water shortages by the year 2050. This was a study commissioned by Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups supporting the regulations. What is even worse is the numbers used in calculating these figures did not take into account the exorbitant amount of water permanently withdrawn from the hydrological cycle, nor did it take into account accelerated increases of atmospheric temperatures dues to increases methane emissions due to the fracking “boom.”
How, in their right mind, could anyone one say that trading water, clean water, for fossil fuel and strong regulations is a good idea. Jobs won’t mean anything if there is no water to drink. So I became involved with SAFE after the first public meeting. I will fight for what I love and what I believe in. Like most parents, you do anything and everything to protect your kids from harm.
Biggers: Do you consider SAFE to be the main frontline fracking organization in Illinois?
Tripp: SAFE is one of the few organizations in the thick of the battle, we have active members spread across all of Southern Illinois and as far north as White county. We have been actively meeting since March of last year and have many devoted volunteers doing a massive amount of public service and education. It would be egotistical to think we are the only group fighting fracking over the 1,000′s of miles in Southern Illinois, but we have made our presence known in Springfield as well as nationally.
We have recently heard through the grapevine that the group RACE and Friends of Bell Smith Springs are becoming active again as the threat of fracking looms over the Shawnee National Forest. SAFE welcomes our allies, local and statewide to join us here Southern Illinois in the fight to ban fracking in our rural communities.
SAFE, like all citizens groups on the frontlines, needs your help.