Update Feb. 21: After first publishing this article with the headline “Proponents for fracking announce formation of committee,” the Times was contacted for a correction as the committee emphasized they are neither “for” nor “against” fracking:
First, we made it really clear that our group has nothing to do with being a proponent “for” fracking. We have made it clear that we are open to anyone, whether they are ok with fracking, or even those who think it should be banned, but support legal and legitimate ways to do it, rather than illegal methods that will generate lawsuits. We are not “proponents of fracking” and it is not accurate for the headline to say that. Second, a “community bill of rights” would not “in effect ban fracking in Johnson County”, in fact, it would have absolutely no impact on the legality of fracking one way or another – that is another major point we are making, and we are telling the truth on this one. County ordinances will have no effect on state law.
— Zachary Garrett, Financial Officer for Shawnee Professional Services
A coalition of Johnson County residents and local business leaders joined commissioner Ernie Henshaw Wednesday afternoon at Vienna’s public library to announce the formation of their group, Citizens Opposed to Johnson County Fracking Proposition.
Henshaw issued a press advisory Tuesday saying the group is a bipartisan coalition of local city, county, state, business, labor and farming community leaders who wish to “stand up” to what they claim is an out-of-state interest group leading the fight against hydraulic fracturing in the region.
The press conference became a bit heated when Johnson County residents who oppose hydraulic fracturing challenged the claim at the meeting saying it is incorrect. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing have sought a community bill of rights that would in effect ban fracking in Johnson County, something the voters will have a chance to express their opinion on in the upcoming March primary.
Shawnee Professional Services in Vienna president Mitch Garrett said that enacting a community bill of rights would effectively force his company of 65 employees to relocate to another county. Garrett questioned the intent of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) organization, which members of SAFE, Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, asked to help draft the proposed community bill of rights. Garrett pointed out the legal cost of enacting a local bill of rights could sink the county’s finances, something Commissioner Ernie Henshaw said he would not allow.
“If voting to ban fracking is going to jeopardize us and potentially can put us in a lawsuit, then I will vote no,” Henshaw said.
The Citizens Opposed to Johnson County Fracking Proposition has the support of downstate legislators State Senator Gary Forby and State Representative Brandon Phelps, who each submitted statements for reading at the press conference Wednesday.
Forby said the efforts of CELDF would hurt farmers, local businesses and Johnson County.
“What it would not impact is fracking,” Forby said. “That is regulated by [the] state. If they are successful, we could lose control over the way we do business and farm our land in Johnson County.”
Representative Phelps echoed Forby’s statement saying, “This proposition didn’t originate in Johnson County, it certainly wasn’t written by any Johnson County residents, and it really has nothing to do with fracking. We regulate fracking at the state level.”
The legislators said if Johnson County does not vote “no” on the Fracking Proposition that the area would be turning over “a great deal of power to these out-of-state interests.”
Community organizer with CELDF and Southern Illinois native Natalie Long not only disagreed but also pointed out that should the voters of Johnson County ask their county commissioners to ban fracking through a bill of rights, that it would be written in Johnson County and by Johnson County. Long said that the county commissioners were the ones who asked for the vote to gauge how the people of Johnson County felt about fracking.
Vienna resident and supporter of the community bill of rights Tony Gerard spoke up at Wednesday’s meeting saying the allegations of an out-of-state interest group guiding his or others who feel the same way is incorrect.
“Every time that I go to a meeting, I just look around and see all my Johnson County neighbors,” Gerard said.
The topic of hydraulic fracturing has been contentious since its introduction into the region more than a year ago. Illinois passed legislation last year to create what has been called the “strictest regulation” of the industry in the nation and looks towards its ability to create jobs and restore finances in Illinois. Opponents of the practice say it will damage the environment, poison the air and water and discount the amount of financial security it would bring to the region.
“Everyone in the county says we need something to help the economy because of the high unemployment,” Johnson County Farm Bureau president Lewis Hollis said after the meeting Wednesday. “Well, fracking has already proved that it creates jobs, and if it’s going to create jobs, then why shouldn’t we have it.”
Johnson County will have its opportunity to express its opinion March 18 when voters head to the polls to cast their ballots.