Protecting native plants, regulating fracking and measuring lake levels

January 6, 2013

Fighting for the right to grow native plants in Chicago

If you’ve listened to my show in the past couple of weeks or you follow me on this page or on the social media, you know of the plight of Kathy Cummings. She is the gardener who came in first place for “Most Naturalized City Garden” in the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program in 2004. Fast forward to October of 2012, when that very same garden was cited by the Department of Streets and Sanitation for being in violation of a city weed ordinance and she was fined $640. Things change, I guess.

Last week, Kathy and I were joined on my show by Suzanne Malec-McKenna, former commissioner of the former Chicago Department of the Environment and currently Director of the Regional Trees Initiative for The Morton Arboretum and senior counsel for energy and the environment at Jasculca Terman and Associates, Inc.

Kathy talked about her plans to appeal the $640 fine, which would cost her another $317. It was at that point that Suzanne offered to pay for half of that fee. I said I would pay for the other half. But my great listeners stepped up, too, and by the end of the day I had about half a dozen people who wanted to chip in. I haven’t worked out exactly how that is going to happen yet, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I have been in touch with Kathy, who headed to the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County the very next day to file for the appeal. She reports that the clerk will send her information about her appeal sometime within the next three weeks.


I wrote last week that the fine seemed inconsistent with the City’s own Chicago Sustainabile Backyards Program, which promotes growing native plants. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) is now responsible for running that program, so Kathy contacted Ryan Wilson, who is Stormwater Program Manager for the Wetrofit™ and Sustainable Backyards efforts. She wanted to know if the name of the program was to be taken literally, that is to say, could natives be planted only in backyards. She also asked for a list of recommended natives, and the list of land-based invasive species that are banned in Chicago. Wilson responded:

Our program does not differentiate between front, back, or side yard, despite the confusing name. The intent is to incentivize residents to install native plants on their private property.

To clarify, there is not an “Approved” list of native plants, there is a “recommend” list that included examples of native plants that qualify for a rebate from our program. It is not a comprehensive list. It lists two milkweeds, Swamp Milkweed & Butterfly Milkweed.

All resources for our program are listed on the website [here], but I have attached the invasive species list and recommend native plants list to this email in case the link does not work:

Here are the documents to which he refers:



Wilson mentions milkweed because it is one of the plants that are at issue here. Kathy says that there are milkweed plants, and although she says that they are on her neighbor’s property, not hers, they are common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), not swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) or butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

The ordinance that she is allegedly in violation of states that the vegetation cannot be on average, more than ten inches high. That would make it tough to grow common milkweed, which many people have a bias against anyway. Ironically, however, Kathy wrote to me:

Yesterday my “Certificate of Appreciation” from arrived for being a Monarch Waystation to provide milkweeds, nectar plants and shelter for monarchs throughout their annual cycle of reproduction and migration.

This, while she’s waiting to hear whether she will be forced to chop down the waystation.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I wrote to Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert about the whole hullabaloo. She sent me a brief response:

Thanks for your note and voicemail. I am doing a little investigating on the topic.

The plot thickens. Stay tuned…literally.

Will fracking in Illinois come with or without tough regulations?

A lot of eyes have been on Springfield, which is wrapping up its veto session in the next few days. While there are many issues that are making headlines, including the seemingly endless wrangling about pension reform, Illinois environmentalists have been waiting to see if anything will happen with SB 3280, the so-called Fracking Moratorium Bill.

At the moment, Illinois has no law regulating the procedure, even as property is apparently being scooped up downstate in anticipation of a fracking boom. However, with that boom comes the potential for contaminated water, air and other unforseen consequences, due to the litany of chemicals that are used in the process.

A number of groups, including the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, have been pushing for passage of SB 3280, which would delay approval of Illinois fracking operations until robust regulations can be written. Among the measures that Sierra Club would like to see in any legislation:

  • Chemical disclosure–before fracking–of exactly what chemicals are being used in the frack.
  • Baseline groundwater testing before the frack and following monitoring afterwards.
  • Water withdrawal plans.
  • An adequate public notice and appeal process for frack well permits.
  • Adequate setbacks from water supplies, including water wells, streams, ponds and lakes.
  • Prohibition on the use of toxic chemicals such as BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene).
  • Prohibition of storing wastewater in open pits.
  • Treating  fracking waste as hazardous waste.
  • Ending clean air act exemptions for fracking sites.

The oil and gas industry protests that it already has these safeguards in mind. But Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points to the experiences in other states, where water has been fouled while the promised jobs did not materialize.

If you ask me, it should be a no-brainer to take a breath and make sure that the water quality in a state that does so much farming should be protected. Orgininally SB 3280 would have delayed fracking operations until June 1, 2014. Unfortunately, that date got moved up to June 1, 2013 and, given how slowly the wheels of lawmaking grind in Springfield, who knows when–or if–the bill will pass.

The NRDC’s Josh Mogerman stops by this morning to see where we stand in regard to fracking in Illinois. He will also talk about a fascinating–and disturbing–article he wrote for Chicagoist a few weeks back and which I saw thanks to a listener who sent me a link. It seems that our lack of rainfall is causing the level of the Great Lakes to drop to such a degree that it could end up undoing one of the great engineering feats of the 20th Century–the reversing of the Chicago River.

Hey, don’t look at me! Or Josh. No less than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has this possibility on its radar.

Never a dull environmental moment, eh?