The thrill of a rare environmental victory: New video

Tabitha Tripp and SAFE police regulations in southern Illinois because the state EPA fails to

By Ted Cox

Just over a year ago, Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment won what members consider a major victory, and activist Tabitha Tripp sought to preserve it.

“It’s a very cellular, physical feeling for me,” Tripp said recently while sitting outside her home in Anna, south of Carbondale. “We feel like we’re constantly pushing, pushing, pushing, and all of a sudden, for just that brief moment, I was pushing but there nothing resisting.

“It was just this feeling of not having resistance for just a little bit,” she added. “Today we don’t have to fight, and the next day we just picked up where we left off. But for that one day it was, like, you’re just pushing, pushing, pushing, and then there’s nothing there. It’s almost like a free fall, but it was just so light. Everybody was so light. It was amazing.”

The triumph was the decision by the Woolsey Operating Company to withdraw from its state permit for high-volume hydraulic fracking — the first and as yet only one Illinois has granted for the controversial method of oil extraction. It was one of the defining issues for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, otherwise known by the acronym SAFE, and the group played a role in the withdrawal.

Fracking basically pumps intense amounts of water into the ground to force out oil, and it’s been blamed for contaminating groundwater supplies as well as for causing earthquakes in Kansas and Oklahoma. So when Illinois passed its law on fracking in 2013 it set strict environmental standards. It was four years before Woolsey took the state up on it, thanks to rising oil prices and — perhaps not coincidentally — a more tolerant environment on state regulations due to the Illinois Environmental Protection agency losing staff under Gov. Bruce Rauner.

That’s where SAFE comes in as a watchdog, as Tripp pointed out staff had been “gutted” at IEPA. “The state’s not enforcing the violations, they’re not enforcing the fines,” Tripp said. “That was one of the very early arguments we made for a ban on fracking was that the state can’t enforce the current laws.”

SAFE, however, got wind of how a well known as TrueFlo #1 in White County had an oil spill that was threatening a local river and the local water supply. Drone footage documented the violations and led to Woolsey’s withdrawal of its fracking permit — citing “burdensome” state regulations — as well as a suit filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

According to Tripp, when SAFE members next met, she made a point of sharing how the environmental victory had made her feel, and pushed others to internalize and preserve their own responses. “I wanted people to remember what a win feels like, because we don’t have many wins when it comes to the environment,” she said. “There had been so few wins, with Trump especially. We’ve had so many losses. So I just wanted people to remember that — just for a brief moment.”


“we don’t have many wins when it comes to the environment. There had been so few wins, with Trump especially. We’ve had so many losses.”

Tabitha Tripp of SAFE

Just over a year later, the battle goes on. According to Tripp, SAFE and other grassroots environmental groups are now keeping tabs on some 8,000 injection wells statewide, used to store waste products from gas and oil extraction, which are increasingly prone to leaks as the years go on. They’re also monitoring radioactive dirt and pipes from drilling that are simply discarded. (The pipes, she added, are sometimes repurposed to create bridges across drainage ditches — without addressing the radioactivity risk.)

It’s difficult work against powerful corporate forces, but it has to be done, she emphasized, because the state is failing to fully enforce its own environmental regulations. “It’s intimidating because oil and gas is a very, very powerful group of folks. And especially in White County,” Tripp added, where “it’s all oil and gas people.”

Although SAFE looks at all “extraction” issues — from coal and gas to soybean and corn exports to even the extraction of people from the Chicago area to be imprisoned as criminals downstate — it concentrates on “protecting water all throughout southern Illinois,” Tripp said, in part because it’s an issue key to everyone. “The water table is connected,” she added, “and water doesn’t know any boundaries.” Fracking on one person’s property can contaminate a neighbor’s water supply, just as on a larger level a state with poor regulations can lead to the contamination of another state’s water or air. (Just ask Metro East residents about air pollution from across the Mississippi River in Missouri.) There’s also the matter of residents having to be vigilant about the tweaking of environmental standards to benefit some business or other. (See the ongoing battle elsewhere in the state on regulations for coal-fired power plants, or companies emitting ethylene oxide outside Chicago.)

“If folks don’t stay on top of things, and aren’t diligent about following permits, about following what’s in their water table, about having water tests done,” Tripp said, “you’re not likely to know what’s being put into the air, what’s being put into the water.

“Staying on top of things is difficult in southern Illinois, because there’s a lot of things happening,” she added, and a relative few people to keep tabs on them. “There’s not enough people down here to do the work that needs to be done to protect the environment.”

Still, said Tripp — who has lived almost her entire life in Union County — the area’s worth it. Anna is between grand patches of the Shawnee National Forest as it tries to stretch across the bottom of the state, with Inspiration Point to the west and the Garden of the Gods to the east. In fact, she pointed out, “There’s a long history of environmental activism in southern Illinois,” and the forest served as one of the focal points in the nascent movement when people organized to stop widespread logging there in the ‘80s.

“I could go hiking every day if I wasn’t stuck doing environmental paperwork,” Tripp said.

She granted that the southern tip of the state can be a “relatively conservative area,” but with “bands of weirdness,” with pockets of progressives living next to or sometimes within Trump bastions. She tries to get everyone to realize the importance of environmental issues by targeting “common values,” because, Tripp said, “Nothing scares the politicians and corporations worse than the people joining together on the same side.”

As she puts it, “Hey, do you like fresh, clean water, because let me tell you, fracked water makes terrible beer. It’s just the worst whiskey ever, you know. I try to get them to realize that water is important, that when you can’t breathe this is going to change your conversation — like you’re not going to have this conversation and yell at me about being a tree hugger.”

It would be better for all if the state policed its own regulations, but lacking that groups like SAFE have to take it on themselves. “Any chance that we get to highlight where the state is lacking on enforcing the regulations, I think that that is definitely a pivotal role that we can play as an organization,” Tripp said. “What I hope that people will understand about SAFE is that, you know, we are trying to protect the water. We are trying to protect people right now where we are until we ban fracking. But until then, the only method of accountability we have is actually holding the state accountable for enforcing the laws that are on the books. So hopefully people won’t see us as being troublemakers as much as we’re just trying to make sure that the state enforces the laws.”