Keeping natural areas safe and your holiday plants alive

November 25, 2012

Illinois environmental issues: the good news and the bad news

First, the bad news…

I received notices about two environmental battles this week–all on the same day, ironically. I’ll start with the bad news first.

Tracy Yang at the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and Elliot Brinkman with the Prairie Rivers Network wrote to say that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Mines and Minerals approved Phase I of the Starved Rock mine on Tuesday, November 13th. Here’s part of the press release:

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Mines and Minerals (IDNR – OMM) has given the go-ahead to a controversial open pit mine next to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County, despite objections from local residents and thousands of Illinois residents.

“Starved Rock is one of Illinois’ most special places, and we are disappointed that IDNR is approving a project that puts it at risk,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The 80-acre open pit sand mine will be located at the east entrance to Starved Rock State Park. There is great concern about its impact on the park, one of Illinois’ top tourist attractions. Noise from nonstop mining and sand processing operations, water pollution from the mine into the park, silica sand dust in the air, the potential loss of Native American artifacts due to mining and the increased truck traffic on the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway running past the mine site and through the park are among the many issues cited by local residents and park advocates.

An additional permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is still needed to allow the release of wastewater from sand processing. The Agency has not yet made a decision whether to allow the new discharge. Wastewater from the mine would be dumped in Horseshoe Creek, which runs from the mine site into Starved Rock State Park.

“The proposed mining operation will be pumping millions of gallons of wastewater into Horseshoe Creek, which flows through the park before reaching the Illinois River,” said Elliot Brinkman, Habitat Conservation Specialist with Prairie Rivers Network. “We are concerned that these increased flows will contribute to higher levels of sediment and erosion in this small, vulnerable stream.”

Impacts to the historic, aesthetic and ecological integrity of the Starved Rock area are another issue. A recent Archaeological Survey confirmed the presence of no less than four sites containing Native American artifacts located on the mine site. The project is also near Plum Island, where in 2004, then-Lt. Governor Pat Quinn led efforts to stop commercial development of the 55-acre island, home to nesting and roosting American bald eagles.

For those of you who are regular listeners to the show, this is nothing new. The IDNR has been moving inexorably toward approving the open pit sand mine on the eastern entrance of Starved Rock State Park ever since the LaSalle County Board approved it last year. However, an additional permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is still needed to allow the release of wastewater from sand processing. The Agency has not yet made a decision whether to allow the new discharge.

We’re getting closer and closer to the time where Governor Pat Quinn might become the only firewall between protecting the most beloved state park in Illinois and allowing this travesty of greed and capitalism run amok to go forward.

There’s still time to write the governor, so click on this link and DO IT TODAY!

Now for the good news…

Thanks to the work of a group called HOMES (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) and other environmental organizations, including Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water (ICCAW) and Prairie Rivers Network (PRN), a proposed megadairy in Jo Daviess County that would have generated an estimated 200 million gallons of manure annually has been forced to close, after a five year battle.

Matthew Alschuler, Press Agent for HOMES, who is on my show today, sent me the press release from HOMES announcing their victory:

On November 15, 2012, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) announced a proposed settlement agreement between the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Traditions megadairy owner/investor, A.J. Bos of Bakersfield, California. According to the terms of the settlement, Bos will abandon the site in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, where the Traditions facility was being constructed. Workers are already land-applying the remaining liquids contained in the partially constructed manure ponds and digester pit to prepare the land for sale.

“Stopping this dangerous project would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of HOMES and their supporters. Never before in my work in Illinois and across the country have I witnessed a community succeeding in halting the construction of an industrial livestock production facility after groundbreaking,” says Danielle Diamond, Attorney for the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water and Executive Director of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

The five year, multi-million dollar battle that pitted Bos against Jo Daviess County farmers and other residents, also saw agencies like the Illinois EPA, the national EPA, Illinois Farm Bureau, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture embroiled in the procedings. The Rock River Times gives a pretty good account of the bitter fight.

Attorney Danielle Diamond, who is on the show this morning, was a guest of mine at the end of September, when we talked about the fight against CAFOs in Illinois and across the nation. I was stunned when I discovered in that conversation that there is no comprehensive data base for these operations, regardless of how much they pollute our lands.

On that show, I talked to David and Renee Leifheit of China, Illinois, who had little recourse when the Illinois Department of Agriculture approved the siting of a CAFO near their home in Ogle County six years ago. Reasonably, they felt as though the value of their land had been significantly diminished and that they should be given a break in their tax assessment. Eventually, they took the issue to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB) ,where a settlement reduced the Leifheit’s property taxes by 12.5%, retroactive to the date of the CAFO’s construction.

Certainly, that would not be enough for me, but the point is that land owners often have no recourse at all when a CAFO is sited near their property.

Perhaps this agreement will give Illinoisans a little more leverage in the the fight to protect their lands against the damage caused by these inhumane operations. We can only hope.

Keeping your holiday plants happy and healthy

It’s that time of year when plants arrive in your house, either as gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives, or because you decided that you wanted to get into the spirit of the season. Some plants, like Christmas trees and poinsettias (and don’t get me started on pronunciation), are likely to be visitors to your household, only to be discarded once we move into the new year.

Others will bite the dust simply because of your own ignorance of how to keep them alive–and I say that in the nicest possible way.

Still others are plants that many people keep all year long–Christmas cactus and Norfolk Island Pine, for example.

Often, the same rules make sense for other tropicals in your home apply to these seemingly exotic plants. Which is why it’s a good idea to keep the University of Illinois Extension Houseplants like handy. U of I has also just posted a web page called Holiday Plant Selection, which you will also find helpful.

Of course, because I have a radio show, I get to bring in people with hands-on horticultural knowledge. Today I’m pleased to welcome Richard Christakes, CEO of one of my great sponsors, Alsip Home & Nursery, at 20601 S. LaGrange Road in Frankfort, Illinois and 10255 Wicker Avenue in St. John, Indiana.

The great thing about Rich is that, like many people in the industry, he started at the bottom, watering and caring for garden center plants, and worked his way to the top. He also does a little radio on the side, but I’m not going to let that intimidate me.

Get your questions about holiday and tropical plants ready, ’cause he’ll be on the show in the second hour. The number, as always, is 773-763-9278.

The double dangers of fracking in Illinois

November 18, 2012

The real cost of fracking in Illinois

It’s been too long since Josh Mogerman from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was on the show. So I took note when I received a couple of emails from him this week about important environmental issues. One was about how fourteen major commercial buildings, with a combined 14 million square feet of space, are working with the City of Chicago to cut their energy needs by 20% over the next five years through energy efficiency improvements. We’ll get to that in a moment.

But let’s start with something that I’ve been covering for almost a year now–the attempt to place an open pit frac sand mine next to the eastern entrance of Starved Rock State Park, and the larger issue of how that sand is used and how vast swaths of land in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are being turned into open pit scars.

Many concerned citizens are making their voices heard in an attempt to prevent the travesty at Starved Rock from being played out. In fact, the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has been one of the staunchest defenders of the park, just sent out this message:

Illinois EPA is currently proposing the issuance of a General National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which would authorize up to 5.1 million gallons of frac sand mine discharge per day into Horseshoe Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River flowing through the park.

The deadline for public input ends this Sunday, November 18, 2012 .

Act Now! Tell Illinois EPA a general permit is not good enough for our premier state park!

Tell Illinois EPA to instead require a site-specific Individual NPDES permit, which regulates discharge effluents more strictly. The individual permit also allows citizens to request a public hearing before the mine can move forward, a critical step in the review process for this proposed mine that has unfortunately had very limited opportunities for public input.

As you can see, you need to make your voice heard TODAY!

But while the focus has been specifically on Starved Rock, there’s a larger picture that involves many landowners in LaSalle County, who find their rights being trampled on by their elected and non-elected representatives. According to LaSalle County resident Farley Andrews, Mississippi Sand LLC’s decision to dig next to Starved Rock State Park was just one of a series of moves:

After that the Village of Utica (directly across the Illinois River from Starved Rock Park) annexed land to the east, along Route 6, and west of Ottawa, on the north side of the river, to expedite sale and mining of this parcel of land by ILLINOIS SAND CO. (another transnational corporation). In much the same ways as the La Salle County Board, Utica Village Council voted against the advise of its own advisory committee to approve annexation and sale of the Route 6 parcel of land for mining. Many residents living adjacent, and across from the mine [see photo on left] have for the past year been engaged in a struggle to save their homes. Many on these residential properties were not included in the annexation of the property to be mined, so they have little recourse through the Village of Utica, but they are absolutely effected, as anyone can see from photos. Noise is terrible, trucks and mine traffic is dangerous, and the mine eventually intends to be running on a 24-7 schedule. Most all adjacent home owners have now posted their properties, “FOR SALE BY OWNERS”. Home owners and this issue desperately need public attention…

Two of those home owners are Phil and Diane Gassman, and they are also on the show this morning to tell their story. It’s not pretty, believe me.

The reason why the bluffs along the Illinois River have become prime mining territory has to do with the nature of the pure silica frac sand found there and along many rivers in the Midwest. At one time, glass was the major product derived from the Jordan and St. Peter sandstone. Now it’s a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which chemicals–many of them undisclosed–are mixed with large quantities of water and sand and injected into wells at extremely high pressure in order to create fissures in the rock that will release oil and gas deposits.

The problem is that this process is being implicated in contaminating water supplies in a number of states, and it’s even possible that the technology is connected to minor earthquakes.

Meanwhile, the State of Illinois has no safeguards when it comes to protecting its citizens from potential damage caused by fracking. The NRDC’s Nick Magrisso writes that the NRDC is urging the Illinois General Assembly to pass comprehensive fracking legislation that would include:

  • A citizens right to take part in the process of permitting wells and appealing permits;
  • Adequate disclosure of the toxic chemicals companies plan to pump underground;
  • Testing and monitoring for contamination before and after fracking;
  • Prohibition on the use of unnecessary toxic chemicals such as BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), and a requirement that drillers prove for any toxic chemical that no safer alternatives exists;
  • Tough standards for waste storage and disposal, and an end in Illinois to the loophole in federal law exempting drilling and fracking waste from being treated as hazardous – one of the many federal loopholes the oil and gas industry enjoys ; and
  • Measures to limit air pollution from both the fracking operations and the heavy truck traffic that accompanies it.

He adds:

Illinois decision makers need to protect Illinois’ citizens, not the pockets of oil and gas interests.  Illinois has a tremendous opportunity to lead the nation and get the rules right by developing responsible standards to govern fracking and by continuing to invest in clean energy, as we have done with energy efficiency and renewable energy – policies that have created thousands of jobs across the state .  However, taking that opportunity to lead on fracking rules will require going beyond partisan divides and ideological rhetoric .  It will require coming together to ensure no dangerous, “wild west” fracking happens on our watch.  And we should do so, because if we do not act together to ensure that fracking is done responsibly if at all, we will end up facing a legacy of pollution together, with the taxpayers left to foot the bill for clean up.

Perhaps the best action that can be taken right now is to have a moratorium on fracking in Illinois until the General Assembly can come up with guidelines to protect the people of the state. Some municipalities are alredy moving in that direction, including the City of Carbondale, according to Environment Illinois:

In a unanimous decision, the Carbondale City Council passed a resolution calling on the Illinois General Assembly to “enact a moratorium on high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing until such time as the health and environmental concerns of the people of Illinois are addressed”. In this decision, Carbondale joins the Illinois towns of Carlyle, Anna and Alto Pass and Union and Jackson Counties in taking action supporting a moratorium, becoming the largest city yet to do so.

Now let’s move from the discouraging to the encouraging. As I mentioned above, a number of commercial buildings are participating in Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative.

The NRDC’s Rebecca Stanfield reports on how this applies to the Franklin Center, which was originally called the AT&T Corporate Center and was built in 1980s and early 90s. The complex is comprised of two buildings, 60-floors and 34-floors tall, and the owner, Tishman Speyer .is working with tenants, employing data centers and prioritizing energy management to bring their energy use down by 20% in the next five years.

Whew! We have a lot to cover on the show today. Let’s get started.

Protecting Chicago’s Trees and Its Wilderness

November 11, 2012

TreeKeepers on the move

Twenty-one years ago, Openlands started a project to engage Chicagoans in a effort to better care for what is sometimes known as the urban forest. The program was called TreeKeepers, and in two intervening decades, Openlands has trained more than 1300 volunteers to become TreeKeepers–people focused on community forestry who are planting, maintaining and monitoring trees throughout the greater Chicago region.

I’m proud to say that I’m TreeKeeper #417.

To become a TreeKeeper, volunteers are required to attend seven three-hour Saturday classes, where they learn the biology, physiology and benefits of trees, soil science, tree identification (still one of my weak points), mulching, pruning and planting. The teachers are professional experts from City of Chicago Bureau of Forestry, the Chicago Park District, Morton Arboretum, Bartlett Tree Experts, The Care of Trees and other companies and municipal departments.

Once trained, Openlands’ TreeKeepers stay involved through our monthly calendar of workdays or by starting projects in their own neighborhoods. In 2010 alone, TreeKeeper volunteers dedicated more than 15,000 volunteer hours to protecting our urban forests.

Given the success of TreeKeepers in Chicago, I was pleased to see that the program might be moving out from the city limits. According to Glenda Daniel, Associate Director at Openlands, the City of Evanston might be next. She tells me that a number of Evanstonians, have come to the city to take the course, including Wendy Pollock, who is involved The Truth About Trees, an upcoming three-part PBS special about the natural history of trees, the deep connections between humans and trees, and the critical role trees play for all life on Earth.

This group has been working with Citzens Greener Evanston to help bring TreeKeepers to the city. If you live in Evanston and you’re interested in this effort, there will be a meeting this Tuesday, November 14 at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2424 McCormick Boulevard in Evanston from 7 to 9pm.

If you’re not a resident of Evanston, never fear. Daniel tells me there the TreeKeeper movement is spreading, and that there is

a new commitment by Openlands to be part of a broader Regional Forest Initiative with Morton Arboretum, Chicago Wilderness and others.  Openlands’ interest is in growing a bigger active constitutency for the urban forest throughout the region.  This will include support for local TreeKeeper chapters, but we’ll also be planning to hold courses in the suburbs that mirror the one we hold in the city.  Morton Arboretum will be hosting Openlands for a TreeKeepers course next spring (and possibly also in the fall), and the following year we plan to develop a course somewhere on the North Shore.  We will be recruiting pro bono faculty from the region’s premier tree care firms (like Bartlett Tree Experts, Davey and its newly merged partner, The Care of Trees), the Forest Service office in Evanston, and various municipal foresters.   

For now, if you think you want TreeKeepers in your town, contact Glenda Daniel at Openlands. Meanwhile, she and Lydia Scott from Morton Arboretum will be holding a webinar on December 5 aimed at municipal foresters and talking about the advantages of working with and how to work with trained volunteers.

Chicago Wilderness Conference

It seems that lately I’ve been promoting one terrific environmental conference after another. This week is no exception, as the the Chicago Wilderness Congress 2012: Shaping the Future of Regional Conservation arrives at The Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 725 W. Roosevelt Road in Chicago on Tuesday, November 15.

If you’re not familiar with Chicago Wilderness, you should be. It is a regional alliance of more than 260 organizations working together to restore local nature and improve the quality of life for all living things, by protecting our lands and waters. The alliance is geographically and organizationally diverse, strengthening their ability to take conservation action at a regional scale.

The Chicago Wilderness Congress gives those members an opportunity to address how this diverse alliance can continue shaping the future of this region as a national and international leader in collaborative conservation.

There’s a lot to cover in all of the tracks of this Congress. They include

I’m happy to welcome Arnold Randall, Chair of Chicago Wilderness, and the General Superintendent for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to talk about this impressive event.

Take action on Starved Rock State Park!

The Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club has set up a Take Action page that allows folks to easily send an email to Barb Lieberoff at Illinois EPA about the proposed frac sand mine discharge into Starved Rock State Park.  Here is the link.

The IEPA is proposing to issue a general NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elmination System) permit which will allow Mississippi Sand, LLC to discharge wastewater from their proposed frac sand mine into Horseshoe Creek. Discharges from the proposed mine site on the eastern edge of Starved Rock State Park would enter the creek, which flows into the park before emptying into the Illinois River near Lone Point.

You can read more at the link above, but the point is that Horseshoe Creek has a better chance of being protected if the Illinois EPA requires Mississippi Sand obtain an individual NPDES permit.

You can write directly to the EPA at these addresses:

Barb Lieberoff
Illinois EPA – Division of Water Pollution Control
Permit Section
1021 North Grand Avenue East
Post Office Box 19276
Springfield, Illinois 62794-9276


Seriously, send me photos of your volunteer junipers!

Speaking of trees, last week I talked about my article in he latest issue of Chicagoland Gardening Magazine called My Favorite Plant. It’s about a juniper that self-seeded in my yard a few years ago. I let it grow, and now it’s…well, you can see the photo on the left. As I state in the article, the reason it’s my favorite is because it chose me, not the other way around.

Turns out that it’s probably the relative common Juniperus virginiana. Now I want to see how many other people have had the same thing happen to them. If you unexpectedly had a juniper show up in your landscape, send me a photo, preferably with you in it, too. It doesn’t count if you planted the shrub–it needs to have arrived on its own. As I receive the photos, I’ll create a “rogues’ gallery” of junipers on my website. Send your pix to

Still a chance to get a live evergreen for the holidays

And I want to give one more plug to Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard, which is featuring living Christmas trees that can be planted in your landscape in the spring. Propagator Mary T. McClelland, who was on the show last week, says they have White Pines and White Cedars, which are natives, as well as Blue and Green Spruce. They’re small enough to load into a car and you decorate them like a cut tree, keeping them well watered. After the holidays, move them into an unheated garage or enclosed porch until spring. Or you can heel them in the ground with hefty mulch layer around them.

The best part is that Glacier Oaks Nursery donates 25% of each evergreen to support the Land Conservancy of McHenry County. You can get more information on the offer here. But be aware that the evergreens will be wrapped and ready for pick up on November 16 & 17 from 10am – 2pm at The Land Conservancy office in Woodstock. Click here to get a map of the area.

Follow up on my native plants rescue

I reported last week that I had gone to Northerly Island on Saturday to pick up some natives for my community garden, Green on McLean. You might be aware that an ecological restoration of the island is beginning this fall. In anticipation of that, the Chicago Park District, with the help of Greencorps Chicago, invited folks to come to a “Plant Rescue.”

I ended up with a car full of Little Bluestem, New England Aster, Gray Headed Coneflower, and a few other goodies.

As you can see on the left, they ended up on the corner of the parkway just in front of Green on McLean. I have every expectation that they will grow happily next year. Stay tuned.