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April 11, 2012 / Mike Piskur

Fracking: coming soon to a shale rock formation near you

A bill moving through the Illinois General Assembly would create new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial oil and gas drilling technique that is set to begin in the state next month. Fracking has come under scrutiny after being linked to polluted water supplies in several states. State lawmakers are working to establish environmental safeguards before fracking operations get underway in downstate Illinois.

Fracking is the practice of injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals known as fracking fluid into the ground to create cracks in deep shale rock layers. These cracks release natural gas buried thousands of feet underground. Fracking has reversed twenty years of decline in the natural gas industry, but has also garnered strong criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers. In his State of the Union address last January, President Barack Obama said, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”

The fracking process involves drilling vertically for 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet before drilling horizontally through the shale. Each fracking uses between two million and five million gallons of freshwater, and can produce one million gallons of heavily polluted water that returns to the surface. This “flowback” mixes with saline water from underground to create what the petroleum industry calls “produced water”, a solution containing high salt content, radioactive materials, and heavy metals such as arsenic. Processed water is stored on the surface until it can be injected into depleted wells, treated, or recycled.

Fracking fluid contains hundreds of chemicals including antibacterial agents and known carcinogens such as benzene. A 2011 report by the U.S. House of Representatives found that between 2005 and 2009 oil and gas companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals and other components. At least 29 of these chemicals are known or possible human carcinogens regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other federal environmental regulations. In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush determined that fracking “poses little or no threat” to underground water supplies. A strong pushback by fracking proponents against federal regulation leaves it to each state to deal with the environmental effects.

Late last year, the EPA released a report stating that fracking likely caused underground water contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming, the first time a federal study linked the two. The oil and gas industry and some water experts contend that fracking poses no threat to underground aquifers and wells.
The industry also initially refused to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process, claiming proprietary rights. A Senate bill would require chemical disclosure in Illinois, as is the case in several other states. Ben Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance and former assistant administrator for water at the EPA, said the initial failure created distrust.

“If you’re trying to hide something, that generates suspicion and concern. And those people protecting public health and environment need to know about these chemicals,” he said. “There’s a difference between the community’s right to know and proprietary rights. Public debate is clearly winning on the side of right to know.”

Energy companies are leasing farmland in southern Illinois, with perhaps $100 million already spent to secure mineral rights in nineteen counties considered favorable for gas exploration. Much of the state is situated above the New Albany Shale, a large geologic formation that contains natural gas and oil shale deposits. A 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates recoverable natural gas reserves in the New Albany shale at about 11 trillion cubic feet, or slightly less than half of what the entire nation consumed in 2010.

While this amount represents only about one percent of the nation’s projected reserves, an oil and gas boom would reshape the local economy and create a host of environmental problems. Even if fracking truly poses little or no threat to drinking water supplies, the processed water presents a large waste problem. Many municipal water treatment facilities cannot process produced water, so oil and gas companies will have to recycle the water themselves or take it to an EPA facility. Perhaps most importantly is the sheer volume of water used. Each fracking uses millions of gallons of fresh water and a well can be fracked multiple times, adding up to hundreds of billions of gallons each year nationwide.

Fracking operations occur in solid rock between gas deposits and aquifers. Grumbles says there are virtually no instances where fracking fluid gets into aquifers or wells from the fracking process itself. The debate over contamination in Wyoming, raises a bigger dilemma: The environmental impact doesn’t go away when the operation ends.

Less than half of this polluted water returns to the surface during the fracking operation, and no one can say with any certainty what will happen to the rest. While much of the water is expected to remain underground, it could contaminate aquifers and wells over time. Landowners and the community could be responsible for dealing with the effects of a million gallons of produced water rising to the surface.

Grumbles adds, “You shouldn’t ignore the risk to groundwater and aquifers, but the biggest risk is surface water contamination and management of very large volumes or salty, mineral rich, produced water once it comes up to the surface.”

Brian Sauder, outreach and policy coordinator for Faith in Place, said an effective law would regulate three core areas: chemical disclosure, wastewater treatment and management, and well casing integrity. The oil and gas industry, however, has supported legislation that only requires chemical disclosure. An earlier bill, SB664, originally included language to require chemical disclosure and wastewater management, and to prohibit the use of benzene and other volatile organic compounds. After lengthy negotiations these provisions were eliminated from the legislation that passed the Senate before failing to clear the House last year. The bill was reintroduced as SB3280.

Several prices of proposed legislation aimed to prevent from happening in Illinois what has occurred in Wyoming and perhaps other states. Two House bills and one Senate bill stalled, and SB3280, introduced by State Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign), is currently under negotiation in the General Assembly. This bill requires companies to disclose the chemical formula of their fracking fluid to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the public, establish safeguards for storage and disposal of wastewater, and test the integrity of the cement and steel well casings meant to protect groundwater during fracking operations.

State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) is promoting HB4312 that would establish a twelve percent tax on oil and gas revenues, as well as a bill identical to the Senate legislation. She said, “Drilling will start in May, and we want to make sure we have regulations in place.”

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on April 4, 2012.

March 28, 2012 / Mike Piskur

Congressional gridlock causes problems for the wind energy industry

The future of wind energy in the U.S. is at stake, if Congress fails to extend the federal renewable energy production tax credit (PTC), which is set to expire at the end of this year. This tax credit has contributed to the wind energy industry’s rapid growth in recent years.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate failed to pass an amendment to the chamber’s transportation bill, proposed by Michigan’s U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), that would have extended a number of green sector programs that have already expired or are set to do so soon. (Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D) voted for the amendment, recovering U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R) did not vote on the matter.) Meanwhile, a bipartisan House bill that would extend the PTC by four years has been in committee since November 2011 and was not included in last month’s payroll tax bill as was expected. President Barack Obama has called on Congress to pass an extension on the PTC. Congress’s continued inaction could lead to its expiration, threatening one of Illinois’ strongest sectors, thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars in revenue statewide.

The wind energy industry experienced robust growth even as the economy stagnated and high unemployment lingered in Illinois and across the United States. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Illinois was second only to California in new wind energy installations in 2011, and is the nation’s fourth largest wind power producer. The Chicago area is home to 14 wind developers or manufacturers and hundreds of other wind industry companies are located in Illinois. Overall, the state’s wind energy manufacturing sector employs over 1,000 workers.

The current PTC provides an income tax credit for utility-scale wind energy generation. The tax credit is meant to incentivize development of new wind turbines, but is only extended one or two years at a time and has occasionally lapsed since beginning in 1992. This erratic policy creates a high level of uncertainty for wind energy developers whose projects generally take several years to move from planning to completion.

Peter Kelley of AWEA said, “Industrywide we are seeing a slowdown in orders for towers and turbines after 2012 that is rippling down the supply chain and the big issue is the lack of certainty around the production tax credit that gives a favorable low tax rate to renewable energy.” AWEA estimates that without the PTC extension, the wind industry would lose 37,000 jobs and $10 billion in total investment in 2013.

Earlier this month, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced the Rock Island Clean Line, a $1.7 billion wind power project expected to create 1,450 construction jobs in the state and spur $7 billion in new renewable energy projects. Rock Island Clean Line will construct approximately 500 miles of high voltage transmission cable to carry wind energy from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota to Illinois and other neighboring states. Southwire of Flora, Illinois will supply the transmission cable, and construction should commence in 2014.

Quinn said of the project, “Just in this recovery period in Illinois, we’ve created almost 20,000 new manufacturing jobs– that’s made in Illinois and made in America. We can manufacture with any country in the world; we’re the best in the world. We’ve got to really understand that we’ve got excellent men and women who know how to get things done right when it comes to manufacturing, and this project is a huge investment in Illinois manufacturing.”

A 2011 study by Illinois State University found that the state’s 17 largest wind farms created approximately 600 permanent jobs and more than 13,000 construction jobs. These systems produce $10.3 million in payments to landowners, $22.2 million in local property tax revenue each year, and more than $4 billion in total economic benefits.

The state added 692 Megawatts of wind energy in 2011, and another 615 Megawatts are under construction. Rock Island Clean Line and other such projects would pave the way for new clean energy development that lacks adequate transmission infrastructure.

Mounting budget deficits and calls to end all energy subsidies conflict with the need to create jobs. According to AWEA CEO Denise Bode, “The stakes for early passage of the PTC could not be clearer. Congress must act. With every day that goes by, layoffs are occurring and further job losses and even plant closings will accelerate with each month we near expiration in December. Economic studies have shown that Congressional inaction on the PTC could kill 37,000 American jobs, shutter plants and cancel billions of dollars in private investment. We are committed to finding any opportunity for an early extension and we are working with Members of Congress to make that a reality.”

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on March 26, 2012.

February 29, 2012 / Mike Piskur

Federal Budget Cuts Threaten Coastal Communities

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on February 24, 2012.

The Obama Administration’s 2013 budget carries positives and negatives for the Great Lakes. The budget includes $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a multi-year effort devoted to cleaning up toxins, combating invasive species, and protecting shores and wetlands from pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, will suffer a 1.2 percent budget cut from the current year, and an approximately 16 percent reduction from 2011. Spending for drinking water and sewer infrastructure will take the brunt of the cuts, and the $9.9 million Beach Grants Program will be eliminated.

This program provides funds to coastal communities nationwide for monitoring of water quality and to inform the public about the presence of “disease-causing microorganisms” at beaches. Its elimination could lead to the increased incidence of illness for beach goers. Coastal communities in Illinois received $241,000 from this program for 2012.

Alliance for the Great Lakes President and CEO Joel Brammeier said although he expects GLRI funds to support beach monitoring in the short-term, it is not realistic to believe communities can continue public health and water quality without dedicated funding.

“If we stop monitoring, we stop knowing what the problems are. I don’t think this administration is going to stop monitoring beach safety. I realize there are going to be trade offs in the current budget situation, but we have to be protective of a program that creates tremendous assets for many coastal communities on the Great Lakes,” Brammeier said.

As a candidate in 2008, President Obama pledged $5 billion in funding for GLRI over ten years. The administration requested $475 million for the fund in 2010, but the lingering economic downturn and resulting budget battles have resulted in significant cuts. Despite these fiscal constraints, the administration has remained committed to tackling problems caused by pollution.

The Asian carp crisis compounded the difficulties stemming from budget contractions. The sudden onset of a major threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem prompted the federal government to spend GLRI funds to combat the invasive species. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite a five percent overall budget cut, has requested $25 million for its efforts to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.

These funds will be used to bolster monitoring efforts and operate electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal designed to stop the fish. Brammeier says, “GLRI was never intended to pay for emergency surgery. A significant portion of it has gone to pay for Asian carp control and prevention. In 2013, the base budgets of core agencies are being built up to handle Asian carp, rather than use funding from GLRI, which is a good thing.”

Spending tens of millions of dollars each year on temporary solutions, however, is infeasible in a time of massive deficits and budget cuts. Given these mounting costs, Brammeier says a one-time investment for permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi makes economic sense.

“The writing is on the wall that separation is a when not an if, but we are quickly transitioning to recognizing that the system is broken not just for invasive species but for water quality and transportation as well.”

GLRI funds may fill the short-term gap, but inadequate beach safety monitoring will create long-term problems for communities on the Great Lakes coast. Lake Michigan beaches are the major natural recreation for millions of Illinoisans and an important economic driver for many communities. Brammeier calls cuts to beach health programs “a risky strategy.”

“Beach closings are stopping coastal communities from maximizing their value,” he added. “It’s more important than ever that we give communities the tools they need to dig out from the legacy of damage from the 20th century so they can get their economies going again.”

February 29, 2012 / Mike Piskur

House Transportation Bill Would Gut Mass Transit, Make Cities Unlivable

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on February 22, 2012.

A surface transportation bill written by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut funding for Illinois, calling for drastic reductions in mass transit allocations and the elimination of popular and effective bike and pedestrian safety programs. The House could vote on the five-year, $260 billion bill as early as next week. Current federal transportation policy expires March 31, leaving very few legislative days — 16 to be exact — for Congress to take action.

The bill, H.R 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2012, would accelerate highway construction, decimate mass transit in the Chicago area, cut Amtrak funding by 25 percent, and clear the way for the privatization of infrastructure. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would gain revenue from domestic oil and gas production rather than from user fees.

The decades-old “user-pays” principle tied highway use to highway investment by taxing fuels on a per-gallon basis. The Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from the federal fuel tax on gasoline and diesel, traditionally funds both highway and mass transit projects. The bill’s Alternative Transportation Fund would dedicate all of this spending to highways and leave mass transit projects dependent on annual appropriations.

The House bill would link transportation investment to energy drilling revenues in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other protected or offshore areas. These highly-speculative projects would, under the best of circumstances, take several years to provide only a small fraction of the funds required to cover the expenditures outlined in the bill.

Putting Rail Projects On Hold?

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-3), who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill “significantly reduces funding for rail programs, including cutting Amtrak by $308 million. And it cuts a funding program for projects of national significance such as the CREATE rail modernization program, which is reducing congestion in northeastern Illinois.”

CREATE is the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, a public-private partnership dedicated to eliminating rail congestion that can delay all modes of travel. On Chicago’s South Side, the Englewood Flyover will allow Metra passenger and freight trains to move through the area without conflict. The project, which received $126 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will also accommodate future construction of a 110 mile-per-hour passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. The House bill would imperil the Englewood Flyover and dozens of other similar projects.

Jennifer Henry of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that the bill would mean a loss of $450 million per year in the Chicago region. A loss of federal funds for Regional Transportation Authority capital projects would force cuts to maintenance and expansion budgets and worsen existing slow zones for Metra, PACE, and the CTA. “Making buses and trains run cleaner, modernizing the CTA, extending the Red Line: any of these projects would be hard to get off the ground without federal funds,” said Henry.

Stopping Pedestrians In Their Tracks, Adding To Congestion

The bill also eliminates the Safe Routes to School program that promotes walking and biking opportunities for children, while reducing traffic and air pollution near schools. The Illinois Department of Transportation administers the program for this state, and shows a record of success statewide. The House Transportation Committee voted down an amendment co-sponsored by Lipinksi and Rep. Tim Johnson (R-15) that would have restored funding for Safe Routes for School and other cyclist and pedestrian programs. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-12) voted for and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-14) voted against the amendment, which was defeated 29-27.

The GOP bill stems from the idea that more and bigger highways will solve traffic congestion problems. Chicago has been ranked the nation’s most congested city in recent years. In 2009, the average driver spent 70 hours stuck in traffic at a cost of $1,738. Traffic congestion, however, would be considerably worse without the region’s network of trains, buses, and bicycle lanes. More road construction and reduced transit service will only lengthen commutes and frustrate commuters.

A federal transportation policy of “drill and drive”, as a chorus of critics call the GOP bill,  undermines the principles of smart growth. Compact, walkable, and bike-friendly communities built around reliable mass transit are the cornerstone of creating sustainable urban and suburban areas.

The Environmental Impact

“The bill,” says Henry, “has very little good from an environmental perspective. It means that more people drive and cannot live without a car, and makes cities unworkable. In the long term, it’s hard to make smart growth communities without transit. You impact land, air, and water as you develop land around the car and as people move farther from the urban center.”

Supporters of the bill claim it will reduce red tape and give the states more control over their infrastructure needs. A key provision would give states the authority to create more tollways, increase private sector investment, and avoid federal environmental impact studies. This “streamlined” environmental review process is meant to eliminate delays that prevent necessary upgrades to the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. A 2000 study by the Federal Highway Administration, however, found that for 89 long-delayed major projects, just 19 percent resulted from environmental reviews.

Support for the highly partisan bill continues to erode, and at least three Republican representatives from the Chicago area have expressed skepticism or disapproval. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of Illinois legislators voiced their concerns with the House Transportation bill, offering some preferred ideas for the controversial piece of legislation. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin says House Republicans should abandon their controversial transportation bill and start over, considering the slim likelihood that it will pass with such a lack of support. Even if the House manages to pass this bill, it’s highly unlikely that the Senate will do the same. The Obama Administration supports a bipartisan Senate bill that passed the Finance Committee on February 2 and could go to a full vote next week. Sen. Durbin is also in support of the bipartisan Senate bill.


February 10, 2012 / Mike Piskur

Lake Michigan and the Asian Carp: an interview with the US Army Corps of Engineers

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on January, 27, 2012.

In a recent PI article on Chicago’s waterways, we discussed the threat Asian carp present to the future health of Lake Michigan. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) reached out to discuss their current strategy, future efforts, and the importance of public awareness in preventing the Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan.

US Army Corps of Engineers team:

  • LTC James Schreiner, Deputy District Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
  • David Wethington, GLMRIS Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
  • Kelly Baerwaldt, Fishery Biologist, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District and ACRCC eDNA Program Manager
  • Felicia Kirksey, AIS Program Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District
  • Lynne E. Whelan, Public Affairs Officer, US Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago

Progress Illinois: Would you summarize the USACE strategy to prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan?
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: The USACE utilizes a four-prong strategy including the electric fish barrier system; extensive monitoring of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal; efficacy studies on how to better the system; and a holistic program called GLMRIS, which stands for the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study. Monitoring has found 2.7 million detections of the species downstream, but no carp have crossed the electric barriers.

PI: How does the electric barrier work?

USACE: The barrier puts electric current in the water, and the fish will feel a tingle as they approach. The fish will become increasingly uncomfortable and will turn downstream as they get closer to the current. There are three barriers constructed but only two are active. Barrier I is a demonstration barrier with a field strength of one volt per inch. Barriers IIA and IIB have a field strength of 2.3 volts per inch and can be operated at any time. The demonstration barrier is located further upstream (closer to Lake Michigan).

PI: How do you respond to criticism from organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council that the electric barrier system cannot prevent very small fish from moving upstream?
USACE: Laboratory research indicated that previous setting of two volts per inch may not defer small fish. We tested fish down to two inches in length and determined that field strength would be increased in October 2011. Additionally, we fitted fish as small as 2.1 inches with electric transmitters and they have not been found past the barriers.

PI: Does the presence of environmental DNA (eDNA) indicate, as some environmental groups claim, that Asian carp have surpassed the barriers?
USACE: It’s always important to make the distinction between eDNA and live fish. When we collect samples we are testing for genetic materials. We don’t know how this genetic material got there, [or] whether it’s from a live fish. What does it mean? There are other ways for eDNA to get there. Maybe from a bird that ate a piece of Asian carp, from fish swimming downstream or maybe even from street vendors in Chinatown dumping ice into the sewer.

DNA can stay in water for a long time so we have to be careful. It’s important to note that in Chicago waterways, our monitoring and rapid response workgroup uses a range of information, but eDNA is a trigger. We don’t really know what it means yet so we error on the side of caution. All of our response actions on eDNA have yet to lead to a live fish capture.

PI: What is GLMRIS?

USACE: GLMRIS is a long-term look at the transfer of aquatic nuisance species between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The purpose is to look at a long-term solution to prevent future transfer. This, of course, includes the Asian carp, but also past species transfer such as zebra mussels and the round goby.

PI: The GLMRIS website indicates that the study may not be complete until 2015. How will USACE respond to new developments over the next three years?
USACE: It’s important to remember than GLMRIS is the fourth part of the overarching strategy, which of course includes the electric barriers. Before the study is complete, there will be construction of permanent barriers to provide redundancy and extra protection. The new barriers will have the same potential to defer fish as Barrier II. An efficacy study identified the need for a barrier along the Des Plaines River to prevent fish transfer between the Des Plaines and Chicago Area Waterways during flood events. A comprehensive efficacy study will be completed this year and will recommend strategies for the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers. We’re not just going to maintain status quo. US Army Corps of Engineers is only one agency within a greater holistic picture of federal agencies and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. We stress that the partnership at all levels is ongoing. Our efforts are coordinated with state and municipal agencies.

PI: Where does USACE stand on the issues of hydrological separation?
USACE: Hydrological separation means the permanent stoppage of water between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. There are over 90 specific individual controls available and hydrological separation is only one option. We’ll evaluate that as the process continues.

PI: What can the average person do to help prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan?
USACE: People should educate themselves on the issues. We use a very transparent process and make a lot of information available to the public. People should stay cognizant that there are alternate means by which Asian carp can move between the Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan, including bait buckets and ballast water. The human transfer of Asian carp is a threat. The barrier is working but people must be aware of the issues. They should be on the lookout and maintain proper precautions to make sure there are not human methods of transfer.


January 10, 2012 / Mike Piskur

The future of Chicago-area waterways

This story originally appeared in Progress Illinois on January 9, 2012.

An Army Corps of Engineers study finds a steady decline in commercial shipping on Chicago-area waterways in recent years. The study has stoked the contentious Asian carp argument and the debate over the future of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the series of canals and rivers connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

The Asian carp is an invasive species that threatens the health of Lake Michigan. The fish voraciously consumes nutrients that other species depend on for survival, and reproduces multiple times per year. Once Asian carp overrun an ecosystem, they are essentially impossible to displace. Groups working to protect the ecosystem support closing locks or installing barriers to prevent the fish from entering the lake, but the shipping industry claims that such measures will damage commerce.

A 2010 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council illustrates the tremendous challenges and opportunities the Asian carp crisis represents. As of 2009, Asian carp had moved past electric barriers along the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) meant to keep them from entering Lake Michigan. In June 2010, a live Asian carp was captured in Lake Calumet – just six miles from Lake Michigan and beyond all barriers between protecting the Great Lakes. The standard response to such findings has been to apply toxic chemicals that kill Asian carp along with many other kinds of fish.

The Asian carp debate illustrates weaknesses in the region’s water infrastructure and raises the larger issue of hydrological or ecological separation – the technical term for severing the connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin. Artificial barriers and chemical treatments are temporary fixes to multiple problems requiring permanent solutions. The Asian carp is just one of several invasive species that could move between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. The ecological and economic costs resulting from these invasions will mount until a permanent solution is implemented.

The reversal of the Chicago River was a monumental engineering feat that, along with the construction of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, linked the Great Lakes to North America’s largest river system and established Chicago as a national shipping hub. In addition to the ships moving people and goods, municipal and industrial waste traveled downstream rather than into Lake Michigan. Chicago was able to move its effluent to the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico instead of polluting the city’s water supply.

A 2009 study by the United States Geological Survey identified Illinois, the Chicago area in particular, as the single biggest contributor to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. Nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich runoff from municipal and agricultural sources depletes oxygen and kills aquatic life in Gulf waters, thus creating a hypoxic or “dead” zone. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the Dead Zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. Over the past five years, the average area of the Dead Zone has been 6,688 square miles, or roughly the size of the state of New Jersey.

Chicago’s antiquated water infrastructure does not separate stormwater from wastewater. Rainfall exceeding .67 inches can cause combined sewer overflows (CSOs), when untreated sewage and rainwater flood basements and enters local waterways. Storms producing over 1.5 inches of rain not only cause CSOs, but also can discharge sewage directly into Lake Michigan. Such events pose an obvious threat to public health and contribute to the flow of pollution wreaking havoc on downstream ecosystems.

The Army Corps of Engineers study shows that commercial traffic on the CAWS has declined steadily since peaking in 1994. Used primarily to transport coal, stone, iron and steel, and petroleum fuels, CAWS commodity traffic dropped from nearly 25 million tons in 1994 to about 16 millions tons in 2008, a four percent annual decrease and 36 percent overall drop. Opponents of lock closures claim doing so would harm the Great Lakes shipping industry, but advocates for separating the waterways, including officials from several Midwestern states, say the study supports their argument.

This trend is likely to continue. Trucking dominates freight transportation in the United States, particularly of distances under 500 miles, while most long-distance shipments move by rail. The vast majority of coal is transported by rail, and the scheduled closure of coal-fired power plants in the region should reduce local demand in the coming years.

Declining commercial traffic and invasive species create the opportunity to construct a regional network of waterways that meets the demands of the twenty-first century. Perhaps first among these is the protection of vital ecosystems upon which the regional economy depends, and an acknowledgement that simply transferring problems downstream is no longer acceptable.

January 9, 2012 / Mike Piskur

What’s next for the Illinois Power Agency?

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on January 4, 2012.

The agency that procures power on behalf of millions of Illinois residents needs a new leader. The Illinois Power Agency (IPA) procures power for all Illinois utilities serving over 100,000 customers. In other words, the IPA brokers deals for ComEd and Ameren, which in turn sell the power to over five million customers. The agency is also responsible for achieving the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy goals.

The General Assembly created the IPA after a bungled reverse auction that was intended to increase competition in the state’s electricity market. The auction was structured in a way that gave the two utilities a marked advantage in the bidding process and lead to increased residential rates of 21 percent for ComEd customers and 36 percent to 53 percent for Ameren customers. These higher rates created larger profits for the utilities, and the ensuing backlash lead Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a formal complaint with federal regulators accusing Ameren, Exelon (ComEd’s parent company) and 13 power marketers of price manipulation. The Illinois Commerce Commission intervened and negotiated a $1 billion dollar payout to Ameren and ComEd customers, and the General Assembly began work on the Illinois Power Agency Act of 2007, which created the Illinois Power Agency.

Mark Pruitt became the IPA’s first Director upon his appointment by then-governor Rod Blagojevich. His experience with power procurement for municipal utilities and power purchasing for the University of Illinois campuses made him an ideal candidate for the position. Pruitt, however, opposed Governor Pat Quinn’s preferred method for meeting the state’s renewable energy targets and criticized the governor’s office for “sweeping” IPA funds to fill budget gaps. Quinn elected to choose a new director in October 2011. Pruitt’s successor, Arlene Juracek, worked for ComEd/Exelon for nearly 35 years and was part of the negotiating team that designed the reverse auction process and the deregulation of the electricity industry in Illinois. Quinn’s appointment of Juracek raised eyebrows in the General Assembly and in the office of the Attorney General.

The job description for IPA Director requires 15 years of experience in the electric industry and an advanced degree in a related field. It also states that the director could not have, “for two years prior to appointment or for two years after he or she leaves his or her position, be employed by an electric utility, independent power producer, power marketer, or alternative retail electric supplier.” Juracek left Exelon in 2007, but her coziness with the energy giant smacked of the revolving door politics that afflicts every level of government.

Quinn’s appointment requires approval by the State Senate, which hasn’t happened. Juracek is officially the Acting Director, and the commission that oversees the IPA has commenced a nationwide search for a new director who, if approved, would receive a two-year appointment. The governor was responsible for overseeing the IPA until November 2011, when the General Assembly voted to strip Quinn of those duties and place the agency within the purview of the Executive Ethics Commission, a nine-member commission that “promotes ethics in public service and ensures that the State’s business is conducted with efficiency, transparency, fairness, and integrity.” The nine commissioners are selected as follows: the governor appoints five, and the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Comptroller, and Treasurer each appoint one. No more than five commissioners may be of the same political party.

Whether this change will benefit Illinoisans or is merely superficial remains to be seen. The agency is charged with meeting the renewable energy goals established by state legislation. The General Assembly and the utilities, and not the IPA, set these goals. For example, the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act aka the Smart Grid Bill gives ComEd and Ameren the power to raise electricity rates to recoup investment in grid infrastructure. The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) determines the size of the state’s renewable energy procurement plan and consumers ability to sell electricity back to utilities through net metering.

Politics and politicking notwithstanding, the IPA continues to wield enormous influence. A one-person outfit before Pruitt hired a chief financial officer in January 2011, the agency operates on behalf of over five million utility customers. In the same week his tenured ended, Pruitt released a report stating his agency saved consumers $1.64 billion since 2009. Currently the IPA is working with municipalities seeking to aggregate their electricity consumption. Community municipal aggregation allows municipal and county governments to purchase electricity on behalf of residential and small business customers, and negotiate a price with an alternative electric supplier rather than the utility that serves the area. The ICC website includes a list of communities pursuing municipal utility aggregation on the March 2012 ballot, and of those communities that have already elected to opt-out of the utility program.