Rose proposes transparency legislation after natural gas leaks

Conveying his frustrations in the relaying of communication between companies, state government and area residents impacted in last year's natural gas leak, Illinois Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, introduced legislation in an attempt to strengthen transparency in last Friday's press conference held at the Mahomet Village Administrative Building, 503 E. Main St.

Unleashing eight possible pieces of legislation, Rose hopes to improve the oversight of statewide gas storage sites and enhance notice requirements and communication efforts after the occurrence of a natural gas leak.

Rose's concerns pertain to December 2016 natural gas leaks in the Mahomet area. A Peoples Gas employee noticed bubbles permeating in standing water on the ground near a well.

The well is near Illinois 47 just south of CR 2800 N, which is roughly 6 miles north of Mahomet. The leak indicated a possible gas leak in the Mahomet Aquifer, which provides water for nearly 500,000 residents. Contamination was subsequently found in six private wells.

The legislative package comes after the Illinois attorney general's office began building its case against Peoples Gas, according to Rose, and after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency conducted 40 water samples in rural Mahomet in October.

Sen. Rose shared the legislative package does not replace the ongoing efforts made by the Mahomet Aquifer Task Force in finding solutions; rather, the legislation is essentially a preliminary toolbox for the group to use if necessary.

The just-in-case package provides possible legislation to present to the Illinois General Assembly in the event that the Mahomet Aquifer Task Force is unable to produce a well-developed solution for the 53-million-gallon aquifer.

"Again, my hope would be that the board group would look at these areas and pick up where I left off and prove, you know put these concepts through the ringer, do a thoughtful review and methodical study and fully vet 'em and come up with a better work product," Rose said.

In August, Rose, alongside Illinois Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, helped pass Senate Bill 611 to form the Mahomet Aquifer Task Force, a 19-member group selected by Rose, Bennett, Illinois Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, and Illinois Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, that consists of environmental, agricultural, health care and local government organizations, among others.

The task force must submit its solutions for better oversight of the Mahomet Aquifer to the Illinois General Assembly by July 1.

Confident in the task force's ability to produce a comprehensive plan of action, Rose presented his legislation as a Plan B.

"If it appears to me that the working group is unproductive, then I am going to go ahead and reserve the right to move these bills this legislative session," he added.

The first piece of legislation would obligate the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to perform annual inspections of its underground gas storage sites. He proposed these inspections be at the company's expense rather than at the mercy of the taxpayers.

"This is a huge issue, it's a huge issue nationally, it's something I don't think too many people around here thought of until this happened," Rose said, "but the fact that we weren't inspecting those is in my thought a monumental failure of the entire system."

Requesting the establishment of a trust fund, Rose indicated the funds would provide a quick response in remediation costs in such natural gas leak occurrences.

"So unlike other areas of the drilling and mining industries, where you have to post bonds and have things available in the event of a spill or a leak, gas storage does not, so we're going to file legislation requiring these companies to have go-to funds available for immediate environmental remediation," Rose said.

Weighing heavily on his third piece of legislation, the Republican state senator proposed a mandate for Illinois DNR to immediately contact and provide notice to government, local media, organizations and people who may be impacted by the natural gas leak.

Also in attendance at the press conference was Kerry Gifford, general manager and water plant operator at the Sangamon Valley Public Water District, who said he found the lack of response as nothing short of appalling.

"To the subject, it's shocking this day and age after Flint, Mich., that we would have such a limited time before anyone was notified," Gifford said. "That was our big issue."

Village President Sean Widener also weighed in about his frustrations given the numerous residents who contacted both he and the Mahomet staff, putting them "on the spot" as they, too, were learning of the natural gas leak at nearly the same time as community members.

"With us being the village of Mahomet and being the closest municipality, we were concerned," Widener said. "The communications were lacking in that regard, and I think that's something, beyond the public safety aspect of this issue, we hope the easy thing gets fixed, and that's the communication trail and notification system."

Other legislation would require companies to consult with third-party environmental remediation experts in such natural gas leak occurrences to create action plans and provide oversight for the clean-up. Legislation also suggested that the companies be required to file emergency action plans with Illinois DNR in an effort to immediately address such emergencies.

In turn, the legislative package requires Illinois DNR to evaluate its current practices of gas and oil drilling and recommend any best practices or necessary legislative changes in an effort to protect residents' air and groundwater.

Requiring companies to not only provide fresh water for residential or business purposes, Rose's legislation also proposes companies offer fresh water for agricultural purposes, too. If companies failed to do so, then Rose's legislation proposes this would be a class 4 felony offense.

After the natural gas leak, Rose said he received several complaints from area farmers indicating their cattle would not drink the water. While Peoples Gas provided bottled water to impacted residents, Rose said this did not assist area farmers. For Rose, provding local family farming operations suitable drinking water for their livestock is "significant."

Rose's final proposed piece of legislation includes an arsenal of various "shell bills" that will assist in ongoing issues related to Peoples Gas and Champaign County.

He defined shell bills as "bills that legislators kind of put in a bucket and hold on to 'em to amend later other language."

Despite the proposed legislation, both Rose and task force member Risley reiterated the importance of the panel and allowing the group time to develop and formulate ideas and solutions.

"The brevity of the task force I think is very important that everybody understands and not minimize what's going to happen here," Risley said. "Potentially, it will take care of aquifer issues, other than Peoples Gas, in the future for all potential contaminates that may go into the aquifer. Other states may look at the policies that we come up with in this task force for guidance on how to handle their aquifers. So as far as the importance of the task force, it's monumental."

Though the task force faces concerns regarding the contamination of only six wells, Rose warns the natural gas leak has the potential to impact many more residents.

"The leak, for the time being, seems to be in a very concentrated area, but in the process of this, there is gas from a leak in 1961 and it's all over the place," he said. "I'm waiting for responses from the attorney general and others on these issues. Part of why I have shell bills is because that would have been before the federal EPA would have even existed.

"One other piece of the ratio, nothing about this is good, but I was told last week that the state EPA has greenlighted the air permits to go in and start drilling well caps to extract gas," he added. "So just because you're not one of the houses that's currently affected, doesn't mean you won't be as it's rising — and it is rising."

The task force will reconvene later this month to discuss how to improve notice requirements and the oversight of the state's gas storage sites. In the meantime, Rose hopes his legislation provides an available means in the event the task force is unable to move forward in its efforts.

"The legislation is not a knee-jerk reaction. It's careful analysis and the hard work by Chapin's office," said Brooks Marsh, Champaign County Board member in District 1. "I think we all need to pull together and support this so it gets done very quickly."

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