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Starved Rock Mine Debate Brings Fracking Fracas to Illinois

By JoshMogerman in News on Jan 21, 2012 9:00PM

Starved Rock [-Tripp-]

Fracking” has quickly zoomed into the American lexicon. The practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals (or, if you are Halliburton, diesel fuel) at high pressure to release oil and natural gas from shale formations has created an energy boom all over the U.S. To some, it’s a path to jobs and energy independence. To others it is an unacceptable risk to water resources and a worrisome industrialization of America’s rural lands. The debate has largely been absent in our neck of the woods because there is little drilling going on in these parts. But a debate on the fringes of one of the State’s most beloved parks shows how far-reaching the changing energy mix has become.

Fracking was front and center this month in LaSalle County when a heated debate broke out, not over drilling, but mining. The County Board voted to allow a sand mine at the edge of Starved Rock State Park, which hosts two million visitors annually to wander its towering sandstone stacks along the Illinois River and beloved canyons slightly inland. The same minerals that create the structures park visitors flock to visit are ideal for use in drilling operations in the Dakotas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Ohio.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources finds itself in an interesting position as both a potentially impacted landowner and regulator, since it operates the park and hands out mining permits for the state. We think they would do well to look closely at concerns expressed by the Sierra Club and the experience to our north, where a Wisconsin sand mining boom is bringing huge payoffs for those willing to sell their properties and huge headaches (or worse) for those who stay:

Judy Carey is among those concerned about the health effects of sand mining. Two years ago, Carey and her husband lived across the street from farmland in the Monroe County community of Oakdale. Now the only thing visible beyond the trees that pepper her lawn are mounds of frac-sand from the sand washing plant, which is operated by Proppant Specialists, an affiliate of FracTech Services of Brady, Texas.

As if the sand wasn’t close enough, Carey says the wind brings it into her house. She often finds a fine white powder on the side of her car and sand on dishes in her cabinet, which she rewashes each week. As messy as it is, she is more worried about the potential health risks. A spokeswoman for the company says it’s investigating Carey’s concerns.

“Your clothes are full of it, you can’t roll your car windows down,” says Carey, brushing sand from a chair on her front porch to welcome a visitor. “The breathing part of it isn’t good. You can just feel it in your throat, feel it in your nose.”

That doesn’t sound like what people clamor for in our parks, lending credence to some of the concerns expressed in opposition to the LaSalle County project where the Trib reports that County Board members were swayed by the promise of 39 new jobs in the mining pit:

Advocates of Starved Rock maintain that the new employment opportunities do not justify the damage they say the sand mine will have on the park and tourism. 

"We can't be trading LaSalle County jobs for LaSalle County jobs and feel like we are coming out ahead," said Paul Martin, arguing that the mine would threaten the 1,270 people who now work in tourism in the county. "Those tourism jobs can just as easily disappear."

No doubt, we need jobs and energy. Now, IDNR will have to decide if this project is worth the cost to bring both.