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Monday, 09 June 2014 09:23

Fracking Drives Farmers From Land in Illinois: Can We Live on Fossil Fuel Instead of Food?

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afracsand2A frac sand excavation in Wisconsin. (Photo: uwex)

An essential resource needed in the fracking extraction process is a relatively rare sand - and Illinois has one of the largest supplies in the United States. As a result, once again the fossil fuel industry is forcing destructive changes in nature that threaten, in this case, farming in the United States heartland: the nation's breadbasket. This is because the sand exists in deposits under rich Illinois agricutural land.

In a June 8 article, the Chicago Tribune spelled out the financial stakes at play:

Dallas-based Eagle Materials Inc., poised to start operating in LaSalle County, estimates it would sell at least 900,000 tons of sand a year from a single mine on 564 acres. At $110 a ton, the company estimates the mine will generate $99 million a year over the next 45 years, according to a state permit application. Analysts who follow Eagle Materials say about $40 of the $110-per-ton price is pure profit.

"Mining frac sand is a lot like mining regular sand except it's wildly profitable, and that's why everyone wants to do it," said Todd Vencil, managing director of equities research at Sterne Agee, a privately owned brokerage firm based in Birmingham, Ala.

The company paid $8 million to buy the land, according to property and state records, and it expects to invest $25 million to $50 million to get the mine running, according to company filings.

The rolling corn and soybean fields near Starved Rock State Park, 95 miles southwest of Chicago, are coveted by multinational corporations for the fine-grain sand deep below the rich soil. Known as Ottawa white, the sand is uniformly circular — perfect for drillers who pump a mixture of sand and chemicals into fracking wells across the nation.

"In the world, there are not that many — geographically speaking — deposits of very high quality northern white sand that has the technical specifications that are in greatest demand. One of those areas is in Illinois, and it's close to the surface of the earth," said Robert Stewart, executive vice president of strategy, corporate development and communications at Eagle Materials.

Cities in LaSalle County, in north central Illinois, are exempt from a county ban on new sand excavation, and many are cutting deals for royalties that are being paid to towns from the frac sand mining companies. This not only is resulting in large pits dotting the area, but it is also forcing farmers outside of the towns to sell - in many cases - their family food-producing properties due to the negative impact of the mining on their livelihood:

The Flynns are weary of bright lights that flood their bedroom each night from a sand mine next door. A second neighboring mine is in the works, and yet another nearby field has just been sold for mining as well.

"I always thought when I died I'd want to be cremated and just thrown around the farm," Cathy Flynn said. "But if everything around me is going to be sand mines anyway, forget it."

This is the other side of the fracking boom. Here, where sand is mined for hydraulic fracturing operations elsewhere in the country, people have two choices: sell or possibly be surrounded by pits.

"You don't want to be an island," said her husband, Larry Flynn.

While a county moratorium forbids new sand mines, area towns and villages have been annexing the land companies have acquired, hoping to reap additional taxes that reduce the burden on residents. The result is that farmers and others like the Flynns — who don't live or vote in those towns yet live next door to the mines — have no say over what is happening around them.

One way to interpret what is happening in LaSalle County, Illinois, is to argue that the fossil fuel industry and its tentacles of related businesses are profiteering by gouging the earth at the expense of our farmland. It can further be posited that fracking is not vitally needed in the US - not to mention its toxic byproduct of pollution at the actual sites of extraction - while food is.

Sand is often associated with the pleasure of lying on a sunny beach and relaxing, with the childish joy of building a sandcastle, with lazily reading a book under the shade of an umbrella. Yet, in Illinois, not far from the famed Starved Rock State Park, the farmland that stretches off into the horizon is becoming a pock-marked moonscape.

Recently, I came across a poet who wrote, "We live on a dying earth of immeasurable beauty." I don't recall the name of the writer, but I do remember my feeling of loss as our heedless greed demolishes a planet that has offered us food, clothing and shelter - and "immeaurable beauty" - and in return we have tortured it for transitory riches for the few.

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