Boomtown wrecks

On the cusp of a hydraulic fracking rush, southern Illinois should recall its boom-bust history

A pump jack works on Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in Cisne, Illinois, as nearby areas are marked for the start of fracking operations.
Antonio Perez/MCT/Getty Images

CARMI, Ill. — When an oil rush swamped her town of Carmi in the early 1940s, my great-grandmother leased her small farm acreage for drilling, but the wells came up dry. So she installed a new bathroom and cashed in like the rest of her neighbors, boarding the roustabouts. At 150 million barrels per year, Illinois pumped out more petrol in those days than Iraq and Iran combined.

The windfall was short-lived. Within a decade, my great-grandmother declared, only the extra bathroom and the boomtown rats remained. Southeastern Illinois, long accustomed to being a doormat for transient workers and coal booms and busts, sank back into economic displacement.

Seventy years later, as the region languishes on the state's bottom rung of unemployment, poverty and health (and a still unfathomable lack of economic diversity), the boom mentality is back. Sanctioned by loophole-fraught state regulations, one of the nation's biggest hydraulic fracking rushes for oil and natural gas is set to return to the same rural counties.

While fracking operations date back to my great-grandmother's days in the 1950s, modern day horizontal drillers inject a witches' brew — millions of gallons of water, chemicals and proppants (like silica sand) — into wells to fracture rock formations.

And with estimates of temporary fracking jobs varying wildly from 1,000 to 40,000, oil and natural gas boosters are intent on exaggerating any economic benefit from extreme drilling — even to the extent of appearing ridiculous — to get besieged local residents on board. (A snake oil salesman would have stiff competition in southern Illinois.)

Check out this new marketing twist: At a fracking conference organized last month by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, an economic development promoter got "plumb giddy" at the prospect of the uptick in fracking traffic, according to attendee and longtime area resident Sam Stearns. The promoter noted that a small Ohio community endures 1,400 fracking vehicles per hour, before pointing out the silver lining: All those additional traffic accidents would be a great boon for local wrecker businesses.  

Sounds like the name of a local honky-tonk band:  Boomtown Wrecks.

It makes you wonder: Is the state of Illinois so desperate that it now peddles collateral damage as an economic incentive?  

Yet, the incredible toll of the real wreckage over fracking — from documented water contamination, including elevated arsenic levels, to air pollution and earthquakes — is rarely mentioned by such promoters. 

Last spring, as fracking industry representatives engineered a backroom regulatory deal in Springfield with state officials and a handful of mainstream environmental groups based hundreds of miles away from the oil and gas frontlines, Dr. Tony Ingraffea, an engineer who helped to develop shale fracking techniques at the Department of Energy, singled out Illinois' limited resources in the Huffington Post. According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, as Ingraffea noted, the Illinois Basin possesses 211 million barrels of oil — the equivalent of about 10 days of supply for the entire U.S — and 4.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, less than two months' supply for the entire U.S.

After making an analysis of fracking booms in other states, economist Mark Haggerty also reminded the Chicago Tribune, earlier this spring, that fleeting and uncertain tax revenues to cover the extra maintenance of rural roads, bridges and small-town infrastructure burdened by such a drilling rush may take two years to even trickle into the cash-stricken county coffers. 

Ingraffea's own conclusion is worryingly elegiac: "Does Illinois really want to turn itself inside out, massively industrialize prime farmland, and gamble with drinking water for a paltry couple months’ worth of oil and gas? Does Illinois really want to shatter its bedrock in order to extract the last dregs of these fossil fuels?"

These are the same questions that southern Illinois resident Stearns (himself a former offshore oil rig worker) has been asking in the ruins of the collapsed coal towns where he grew up — and where my own family settled during the salt mining rush two centuries ago.

These boomtown wrecks are old stories in our families.

In the 1920s, bankers and investors in southern Illinois belittled any attempts at economic diversification, claiming that the region possessed a 1,500-year supply of coal. Jobs abounded. Towns sprung up. The future would be paved with the tax revenues of the coal mines, the promoters claimed. 

Within a decade, southern Illinois ranked as one of the most impoverished regions in the entire country. A government report, "Seven Stranded Coal Towns," gave an overview in the late 1930s of "utter economic devastation." The report added: "Once lively coal centers gradually sink to ghost towns. They have seen the building-and-loan bubble burst in every coal town and every bank throughout the greater part of the coalfield driven into bankruptcy. They have seen employment shrink until two out of every five workers were 'surplus' at the busiest season of the year, while the public-assistance load climbed until it included more than half the entire population of the three counties (Saline, Franklin and Williamson). They have seen the coal boom subside and give way to hopeless poverty."

Stearns puts it well: "There will be a boom and then there will be bust. A few will profit from the boom and the rest of us will have to live with what they leave behind. Southern Illinois will not be a place you would want to retire in. Any reclamation effort after fracking is like putting makeup on a corpse."

Or, as my great-grandmother would have declared: All that's left will be extra bathrooms and boomtown rats.

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