Why We Support Raising Illinois’ Minimum Wage

Sierra Club joined allies in the Raise Illinois coalition Monday to call on the Illinois General Assembly to take action this fall to raise Illinois’ minimum wage to at least $10 per hour. On Election Day two weeks ago, 67% of Illinois voters voicing supported an advisory referendum calling for the increase.

What does raising the minimum wage, and addressing income inequality, have to do with protecting the environment? We know that a healthy environment depends on a healthy economy, and an engaged public, with citizens empowered to protect their health and families.

Pollution thrives on poverty. Families living on minimum wage salaries are more likely to live with more air and water pollution, and hazardous wastes, than those earning a living wage. Low-income households are more likely to have a child or family member who suffers from asthma or other illness made worse by pollution. People struggling to survive are less empowered to seek justice when their communities are threatened. That’s how poverty attracts pollution, and environmental injustice occurs.

Everyone wants clean air, clean water, safe open spaces, and a better future for their families. However, you can’t have a voice in the fight for our future if low wages force you to focus on putting food on the table. Illinois families deserve better, and the voters have spoken, loud and clear. Sierra Club is proud to stand with our faith, labor, community, and social justice allies and call on the Illinois General Assembly to give working families a raise, and a path to a better future.

2014 Election Overview

Our election teams rocked the campaign trail in 2014. Regardless of the disappointing outcomes of some of our campaigns, we were blown away by how many people showed their concern for the well-being of Illinois by volunteering for our endorsed environmental champions’ campaigns. See the image below for the full scoop on the work of Sierra Club members and volunteers:

Thank you everyone who phoned, knocked, and voted this election!

2014 election overview

You can also see “Election Results 2014”  to view a PDF of our endorsed candidates’ wins and losses.

Batavia City Government Demands Accountability from Nation’s Largest Coal Company

On November 3, Batavia City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Illinois Attorney General to investigate Peabody Energy’s sales process of the Prairie State coal plant. City Council made this request in response to citizens’ concerns about the environmental and financial risks associated with Batavia’s long-term power purchasing agreement with the coal plant.
The Prairie State coal plant, located in Marissa, Illinois, is the largest point source of carbon pollution built in the last 25 years in the U.S. Peabody Energy, who built the plant starting in 2007, failed to entice private investors, who questioned the feasibility of profitably burning Illinois coal. Instead, Peabody Energy sold more than 200+ municipalities take-or-pay contracts to purchase the electricity for the next 30+ years. This transfered all the financial liability from Peabody Energy (who ultimately profited from this sale), to small municipalities.
In the past year, electricity prices from the coal plant have far exceeded the projected costs that Peabody marketed to municipalities. Citizens across the Midwest impacted by these costs are demanding accountability.

In Batavia, Illinois, a coalition led by the Sierra Club worked to put grassroots pressure on Batavia City Council. Citizens collected more than 1,000 citizen petitions and more than 40 business petitions in support of asking for an investigation.

Sierra Club applauds Batavia City Council, the Mayor, and City Staff for taking this important step forward, and thanks all of our coalition partners and volunteers for their leadership and commitment!

Closed Door JCAR OKs Illinois Fracking Rule

On Thursday, November 6th the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) approved rules to implement the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act.   Although JCAR’s action was final, the public could not see the final version of the rules considered, and in fact we stillcannot see them until they are filed with the Secretary of State sometime before November 15th.

This lack of transparency is particularly disconcerting in light of the fracking industry’s announced efforts to weaken the rules, and media reports indicating that industry was lobbying JCAR members privy to the draft rules at the time of the JCAR vote.  Thousands of members of the public expressed their opposition to fracking to JCAR, including Sierra Club members, who urged the Committee to reject the industry attacks, and further strengthen the rules.

The JCAR process is not new – virtually every significant change in rules implementing state laws must be presented to the bipartisan panel, ostensibly to ensure that agency rules are consistent with the law.   However, much of its work is invisible to the public, and can result in major changes in public policy.   In the case of a practice as controversial as fracking, this creates a real risk of lobbyists undermining proposed agency rules behind closed doors.

When the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) came out with the initial draft rules a year ago, Sierra Club members and thousands of other citizens and groups sent back with a very clear message – the rules are sorely lacking and must be revised.  After a long and arduous six-month process, IDNR responded to the public comment with revised rules that included some major changes requested by the public.

Fracking poses grave risks to drinking water, air quality, human health, and our climate, and no rules or regulations can make it safe.   Considering the dangers, the safest and best approach would clearly be a statewide moratorium, to allow time to consider important research underway and learn from the experiences of other states.   However, it has been legal for under Illinois’ decades-old oil and gas laws, and the General Assembly has failed to pass legislation backed by Sierra Club and dozens of organizations to impose a moratorium.

With Governor-elect Bruce Rauner making his strong support for fracking in Illinois crystal clear, the public deserved the strongest possible protections against these dangers, and a transparent rulemaking process that values public comment and input. While concerned citizens can only wait and see what final rules JCAR approved, the lack of transparency in making this critical decision does not inspire confidence.

Quinn/Rauner Debate Climate Change

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During the October 8th Downstate Gubernatorial Debate in Peoria, candidates for Governor were asked about their position on climate change and whether they supported President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

The question came from Jamey Dunn at Illinois Issues magazine:

Q: States would play a large role in implementing the proposed federal role to cut carbon emissions. Do you believe that climate change is happening and is man-made and what is your take on the Obama administration’s plan to cut carbon given that the state derives most of it’s electricity from coal?

Bruce Rauner: “I believe we need a broad based portfolio of energy options in Illinois and in America. I do not believe that betting too much on any one sector is prudent- we need a broad base and we need energy independence for America and I’d like to see that also for Illinois. I believe we can have renewable energy resources here, we can have and should have further development of our wind farms, of our solar energy- renewable resources. But I also believe we can be prudent in our energy development from more traditional resources. We have incredible energy opportunity in southern Illinois with coal, with oil and gas, with hydraulic fracturing. It can be a massive job creator and tax revenue generator if we have a broad based portfolio of energy options and I would push every capability in that regard.”

Governor Quinn: “I think we have to reduce emissions and I do think we need to take on climate change. The winter we just had- terrible tornadoes this November here nearby and in Washington and other place in Illinois. I think the alarm signals told all of us that severe weather is something we all need to pay attention to and reducing emissions is part of the job for all of us. And since I’ve been governor, our state has erected many many wind turbines across Illinois. I believe in wind energy and solar energy. I’ve been in the roof of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago where they have solar collectors at real cost. We also have to believe in energy efficiency and we’ve invested in that in Illinois. Our state is the only state not on a cost that is in the top 10 in energy efficiency states in the country and we’ve been able to do that in my time as governor. We’ve invested in energy efficiency- it’s one of the best ways to reduce emissions, help grow jobs. These are clean energy jobs that create good paying jobs for people by reducing the need for energy whenever possible and I think the state of Illinois can be a leader in this area. We have good workers who are well trained”

You can view the entire debate hereentire debate here The question on climate change is the second one in the debate.

Gov. Quinn Protects Key Illinois Wild Places

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn today is announcing major investments that protect some of Illinois’ last wild places for future generations, and make critical improvements at Illinois state parks.

Governor Quinn announced today that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is taking these steps to protect the natural heritage of the Prairie State and provide quality outdoor recreation at our state parks:

-a 51.47 acre addition to Starved Rock State Park, featuring steep bluffs and ravines located adjacent to a dedicated nature preserve
-121 acres in Edgar County, contiguous to the northern boundary of the 87-acre Willow Creek State Habitat Area near Paris. The property will be managed for pheasant hunting, other wildlife species and additional recreational activities.
- Jenkins Marsh, a 242 acre parcel of land adjacent to the Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area. IDNR currently owns 5,425 acres at this location in Woodford, Tazewell and Peoria counties.
-4,400 acres of contiguous wildlife habitat north of Carbondale and contains floodplain forest along the Little Muddy River, deep-water lakes and ponds, and leased farm ground that could eventually be restored to grassland habitat.
-Improvements to trail, camping, playground, and other facilities at eight state parks across the state

We applaud Governor Quinn and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for acting to protect these beautiful places for future generations, and for all the work they have done to restore our state parks and Illinois’ ability to protect our natural resources.

These investments in conservation will ensure that future generations can enjoy these beautiful parts of the Prairie State, and that visitors to our state parks have a great experience. They are also the result of the bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly that Governor Quinn built to provide sustainable, long-term funding for the Department of Natural Resources.

Six years ago, the IDNR was on the brink of collapse. Biologists and other scientists that protect our environment worried for their jobs, and some state parks were shuttered. Those were dark days, but Governor Quinn has worked to rebuild IDNR and their capacity to protect our environment and provide outdoor experiences that are important for our quality of life, and for the local economy.

Fall is a wonderful time to get outside and enjoy Illinois’ great outdoors. We encourage everyone to find some time this autumn to explore an Illinois state park or conservation area, get some fresh air and see the fall colors, and celebrate what we’ve accomplished to protect beautiful parts of the Prairie State.

Statement on Draft Fracking Rules Before JCAR

Recently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) issued revised rules to regulate high-volume horizontal fracturing for oil and gas, or “fracking.” The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) is now considering IDNR’s proposal, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the health of Illinois residents facing threats to their drinking water, air, and communities.

It falls to Illinois and other states to protect themselves from the dangers of fracking because, during the Bush-Cheney administration, the oil and gas industries were exempted from basic clean water, clean air, and other environmental laws. That means that there is no basic level of protection for states to build on when it comes to fracking, despite its unique risks to public health.

Fracking in other states has been linked to a wide range of health concerns from respiratory problems to skin rashes and other medical problems, including birth defects and lower birth weight. The threats from fracking include drinking water contamination, and increased levels of air pollution, including methane, which is a powerful contributor to climate change. No current technology has been shown to eliminate leakage of methane from wellheads. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes and major impacts on rural communities, such as added costs to the public because of the damage to infrastructure, demand on health facilities, and increased crime.

Illinois now finds itself targeted by the oil and gas special interests that want to bring this dangerous practice to the Prairie State. Sierra Club and thousands of citizens across the state advocated for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois, to allow us to learn from experiences in other states, and emerging health research. We oppose fracking in Illinois, and have long held that a moratorium on fracking is the safest and best approach, considering the pollution and social problems associated with fracking in other states.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly, so far, has not approved a moratorium on fracking, and the risky practice has been legal for decades under Illinois law. While work to stop fracking continues, it is essential that IDNR adopt the strongest possible protections for the rural Illinois communities in grave danger. IDNR’s first draft of fracking rules, proposed in 2013, prompted an unprecedented outcry from thousands of Illinois citizens who demanded that IDNR go back to the drawing board to fix major problems with their first draft. To their credit, IDNR has responded to comments on their first draft of rules by improving many provisions of the rules as requested by citizens. Significant changes include giving the public a greater voice in permitting decisions that affect them, efforts to close potential loopholes that could allow unregulated fracking, and making it clear that if a clean water well becomes dirty after fracking, fracking is presumed at fault. IDNR is not only within their statutory authority to propose these changes, it is also their mandate to do so as stewards of our land, air, and water.

The revised second notice draft includes many critical improvements that have come under attack by industry. Industry’s push to weaken the revised rules underscores our concern and opposition to fracking in Illinois. Big oil and gas companies clearly value their profits over the health of Illinois citizens, and now they are trying to force through shoddy regulations with a political power play. The General Assembly rejected a similar attempt to silence the public in May, and JCAR’s response to the attack by industry should be the same: allow the professionals at IDNR to listen to the public.

The changes proposed by IDNR are not only crucial for protecting citizens. IDNR’s amendments, and also further improvements, are also necessary to meet the minimum standards in the state statute. JCAR’s responsibility is to ensure that rules comply with the law. Sierra Club urges JCAR to ensure that the Revised Administrative Rules on Hydraulic Fracturing will not be weakened, and make these additional changes:

• Eliminate arbitrary caps on administrative penalties that unnecessarily limit potential fines on those who would cut corners and jeopardize our health.

• Ensure that criminal penalties may also apply, as specified by the Act

• Make clear that all permit suspensions go into effect immediately to protect public safety.

• Set a maximum 21 day time limit for operators to notify the Department of a change in a permit application; to ensure ample time for Departmental consideration of that information.

• Eliminate a potential two-hour delay for medical personnel to obtain industry chemical information; a two-hour delay could be a death sentence to a person having a health crisis from toxic chemicals. Potential confusion and time wasted should be remedied by requiring immediate response from a knowledgeable source, such as a 24/7 poison control center.

• Specify that drill cuttings need to be tested for contamination, including for oil-based mud and polymer based mud, radiation and toxic chemicals prior to storage.

• Inspection of storage tanks and reporting of corrosion should be increased to at least once a month due to the toxic nature of the tanks’ contents. Semi-annually is not adequate.

Legislators on JCAR will act on IDNR’s proposal by November 15th. It is critical that legislators reject the latest power play by oil and gas lobbyists to gut IDNR’s proposed rules. Big oil’s attempt to bully Illinois into deleting key public health protections is a clear warning of the risks ahead to Illinois as corporations target the Prairie State, and it must be defeated. It is also crucial that JCAR insist on further improvements in IDNR’s draft, especially regarding enforcement.

Finally, we urge IDNR to ensure that no fracking permits are considered or granted until all of the engineers, inspectors and enforcement personnel are hired and trained to enforce these rules. IDNR was right to halt fracking permits while these rules are under development, and that pause should remain until the strongest possible rules are in place, along with the professionals to enforce them.

Sierra Club is opposed to fracking and believes no amount of regulation can make this dangerous practice safe. We also believe that Illinois citizens deserve a voice in permitting decisions that will affect them and their ability to hold accountable those who would poison our air and water. We call on JCAR to reject the oil and gas industry’s attempt to gut the protections proposed by IDNR, and push for the strongest possible regulations on this dangerous practice in order to protect the citizens of Illinois. Our work for an energy future beyond fossil fuels will continue, including an Illinois without fracking.