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Organizing Citizens Groups on Coal/Fracking Frontlines: Q & A with Illinois South Founder Dave Ostendorf

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For many residents in southern Illinois dealing with the fallout of a sanctioned coal and fracking rush, the time has come to revamp the historic Illinois South organization and its role in providing impacted residents with a voice in state and federal regulatory matters.

Call it deja vu all over again.

And perhaps no one understands this better than Rev. Dave Ostendorf, the co-founder of the Illinois South citizens group in 1974, and a long-time community organizer for civil rights in Chicago and across the heartland and nation.

"Building critical mass around the stories--of people and communities most directly impacted or the stories of devastating environmental impacts--seems to me like the challenge that still lies ahead," he told me in a recent interview. "And the challenge that the good folk of Southern Illinois face."

Based in the historic coal town of Herrin, Ostendorf and his co-workers effectively organized local communities to use their stories and voices to take on the rogues elements of the coal industry during a coal rush four decades ago. Illinois South organized locally-led workshops, conferences, farmer's markets, and published a series of fact-finding pamphlets, including "Who's Mining the Farm: A report on the energy corporations' ownership of Illinois land and coal reserves and its implications for rural people and their communities."

At the invitation of city officials in Sparta in 1978, for example, Illinois South organized a series of public hearings that allowed local residents to have a hand in developing unprecedented protections against strip mining operations by Peabody Coal.

"The Illinois South Project's participation with the people of Sparta in this process," Ostendorf wrote years later, in Thunder at Michigan and Thunder in the Heartland, "taught us that social change organizations can play a critical role in such negotiating process without compromising their own goals."

new Illinois South courtesy of Matthew Schultz, Graphic Design

That was then; but is today a similar story? While Illinois South eventually transformed into the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and shifted to farm matters, many of the same issues facing coal and extraction areas have come back into play in southern Illinois.

And come back in a fury. It's bad enough that the state of Illinois is ensnared in a national disgrace over failed coal mining regulations and protection measures.

But the recent debacle over Illinois' admittedly flawed new fracking regulations, hammered out last spring in backroom negotiations between gas industry and state officials, and a handful of inexperienced and non-impacted environmental representatives, was a flashback to 1977 for many long-time activists, when compromising Big Green organizations and legislators abandoned the strip mining abolitionist movement and opted to "regulate" strip mining, instead of banning its undeniable wrath of destruction in the coal areas.

In 1977, in the afterglow of the OPEC energy crisis and a new scramble toward coal production, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, an admittedly "watered down bill" that would enhance "the legitimate and much needed production of coal."

Few residents in the impacted coal mining areas agreed. An Appalachian coalition working with the heartland and western advocates considered the bill "so weakened by compromise that it no longer promised effective control of the coal industry or adequate protection of citizens' rights." Writing in the Illinois South newsletter in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the mining law, legendary Illinois activist Jane Johnson declared: "People in the cornbelt felt betrayed."

A similar feeling of betrayal was issued this summer after Illinois passed its fracking regulations.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French proverb goes, and perhaps it's particularly apt for Illinois: The French were the first Europeans to discover coal in the Americas, along the Illinois River in the 1600s, that ultimately launched the first coal industry on our nation's soil.

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