Clear and Present Danger: The Remedy

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — State lawmakers on the House Energy and Environment Committee overwhelmingly approved a plan in a 29-0 vote to modify the Illinois Underground Natural Gas Safety Act and require greater oversight and monitoring of natural gas storage fields.

Rep. Bob Morgan (D-Highwood) sponsored the measure in response to a Target 3 investigation that found evidence of methane gas leaking from Nicor’s underground natural gas storage facility in Ancona.

“This legislation was brought about after some news coverage identified effectively a gap in our regulations when it deals with pollution,” Morgan said during the committee. “There is a series of news stories in WCIA’s coverage that exposed what was happening in LaSalle County, in particular, with natural gas underground storage facilities.”

Read more: Clear and Present Danger: The Leak

The exact volume of leaking methane remains somewhat of a mystery, though its effects are visible across several acres of farmland above the storage facility in LaSalle County. State investigators and court documents said the geological formation where the gas was initially stored had developed a crack that allowed the gas to bubble up to the earth’s surface.

“When natural gas leaks from depleted aquifers, it can contaminate the surrounding soil and water,” Ariel Hampton with the Illinois Environmental Council said in Monday’s committee hearing. “We want to make sure these communities are protected when these leaks occur.”

When the first Target 3 report was published, a spokesperson for Nicor Gas said the Ancona facility includes a shallow mitigation system that collects roughly 1.5 to 3 million cubic feet of leaking gas daily before it reaches the earth’s surface. The system then pumps that gas back into the same leaking storage formation where it came from. A 2017 memo from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources cited a Nicor estimate that the leaking gas could reach up to 912 million cubic feet per day, though the company later said it was unaware of that figure.

“There’s clearly a number of cracks in the system where people are falling through the cracks,” Morgan said. “And these big, multinational, multi-billion dollar companies are polluting the area, whether it’s the air or the water, and we need to make sure people are safe and we’re holding them accountable so that this kind of pollution stops.”

Morgan’s initial proposal says if state regulators test leaking gas and can trace its chemical fingerprint back to the storage field where it came from, the company would have to pay for the installation of gas detectors, devices to separate gas from water, lodging accommodations for any affected homeowners should the gas levels reach explosive levels, and a comprehensive inspection of the wells that draw the gas up out of the storage field.

Morgan also said he plans to file an amendment to address a separate incident at a different Nicor storage field in Troy Grove, Illinois, where lab tests from the storage wells revealed alarming levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, showing up in wastewater after it was drawn up from the storage formation.

Read more: Clear and Present Danger: The Waste

While the company reported the lab results to the state, our investigation found it also had a state-issued permit to dump the wastewater into a subsurface leach field that sits directly above an aquifer recharge zone. Later, the company hired trucks to haul the wastewater off site while it applied for a new storage permit to dispose of the fluid.

Litesa Wallace, a former House Democrat who now lobbies for Nicor, testified in Monday afternoon’s committee that in that case, “Nicor stepped up and did as it should have.”

Morgan told his colleagues that he remains in conversations with the gas company to determine how to tighten the regulations to prevent further pollution.

“This legislation is a result of the very strong reporting by WCIA identifying a very real public health risk, and I look forward to making sure that we address that this session,” Morgan said in a phone call after the committee hearing convened on Monday night.

Rep. Tom Morrison (R-Palatine) expressed reservations during the roll call, but ultimately switched his vote to yes pending new amendments that Morgan may introduce at a later date.

“We can’t just leave that to the utilities to do what they think is best,” Morgan said. “We have to make sure they actually do what’s in the best interest of the state.”

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