Representatives from three local organizations spoke Saturday about the struggle for environmental justice in southern Illinois at the Occupy Carbondale Social Forum Weekend Teach-In in Carbondale.
The panel members discussed how southern Illinois’ natural resources are at stake as major oil and gas corporations search for new sources of energy in the region.
The environmental advocacy panel was one of about a dozen forums held during the three-day event, which was sponsored by Occupy Carbondale, a local organization affiliated with Occupy Wall Street.
Mark Donham, a spokesperson for the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists, said the U.S. Forest Service might allow commercial logging and oil and gas exploration in the Shawnee National Forest by summer if a 16-year-old federal injunction prohibiting such land use is lifted.
Donham said one of the great assets of southern Illinois is that, for a major industrial Midwestern state, much of the region is public land.
“Because it is public, the public has a say in how that land is managed,” Donham said. “And the public in southern Illinois has shown over the years, over the last several decades — probably over the last 30 years or so — a lot of interest in what goes on in the Shawnee National Forest.”
He said the combined efforts of several grassroots environmental organizations in the mid-1990s resulted in a 1996 federal court injunction that prohibited commercial logging and oil and gas exploration in the Shawnee National Forest until the forest service could present a plan that included management of indicator species, particularly songbirds, among other items.
The forest service revised their plan and requested in July 2011 the injunction be lifted, but the new plan still doesn’t address all of the environmentalist’ concerns, Donham said.
On Feb. 16, Judge Phil Gilbert heard arguments about lifting the injunction in Benton U.S. District Court and said he needed two or three months to make his decision, Donham said.
“I think they [the forest service] were fairly confident that the judge was going to lift the injunction from the bench because they brought their whole entourage — about a dozen people — including their public relations person,” Donham said.
He said the result of last month’s hearing was a big moral victory for the environmentalists, but the judge may still decide in two or three months to lift the injunction. If that happens, the forest service could start allowing commercial logging and oil and gas development in the Shawnee National Forest, Donham said.
No one at the public forum said he or she supported commercial logging or oil and gas development in the forest.
Another hot-button environmental issue the panel addressed was hydraulic fracturing.
Liz Patula, a member of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment, said natural gas companies will use hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process to extract natural gas from subterranean shale deposits, in Saline County starting in June.
She said studies show that the chemicals used in fracking cause water and air pollution. The chemicals seep into the ground water and evaporate into the air, leaving the area surrounding a fracking site contaminated, she said.
“The land becomes worthless after all the contamination,” Patula said.
She said the water used during the fracking process was exempt from meeting the standards of the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed by President George W. Bush.
Patula said gas companies don’t inform land owners about the chemicals they use during fracking.
After the fracking operations, land owners are left with unsafe drinking water and toxic soil, she said, and energy companies are powerful enough to fight and win the lawsuits filed against them by land owners.
“This is a David and Goliath situation,” she said.
Patula said her organization suggests concerned citizens write to their legislators about this issue. Several communities in New York have banned fracking, using a legal authority known as home rule, which allows municipalities to govern themselves as long as no state or federal laws are broken in the process, she said.
Representatives of Next Energy, a company that has conducted business related to hydraulic fracturing in Saline County, did not respond to a request for an interview.
The use of coal was also targeted by the panel.
Daniel Younker, a senior from Downers Grove studying philosophy, talked about how student organization Beyond Coal is working on a plan with university administrators to replace the coal-burning power plant with a geothermal system.
“Basically, every stage in the life cycle of coal is polluting,” Younker said.
Converting to a geothermal system would save the university money, Younker said.
“Ball State recently installed a geothermal system that’s saving them $2 million a year,” he said.
Younker said the argument that coal-related jobs in the community will be lost if the university switches to geothermal energy is inaccurate.
He said many coal mining jobs are already being lost because of industry mechanization and that switching from coal to geothermal energy would not damage the local economy.
“We might lose some cardiac specialists at the hospital — those jobs might be reduced, but I’m not sure anyone is going to make the argument that that’s not ideal,” he said.