(March 25, 2022) A collective of community and environmental groups is asking an Illinois appeals court to overturn a flawed decision to allow a natural gas pipeline to be built in Pembroke Township – an historic Black farming community whose concerns were not considered in the approval process and who could be severely harmed by the pipeline.
The Illinois Commerce Commission recently approved the project for gas utility Nicor even though few of Pembroke’s 1,700 residents will be able to use natural gas and many are fighting for renewable energy for their community instead. The pipeline threatens both a globally rare ecosystem called Black Oak Savanna and the healthy, organic soil in the area that has been preserved through 150 years of careful agricultural stewardship. Environmental Defense Fund, the Pembroke Environmental Justice Coalition, and Blacks in Green filed a petition for review with the Appellate Court of Illinois for the Third Judicial District.
“Adding new long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure just when clean energy is within reach is a step backwards, and it’s being done on the backs of those who can least afford it,” said Christie Hicks, lead counsel for Environmental Defense Fund. “Generations of residents will be saddled with the burdens of this project without seeing any benefits.”
“If we aren’t careful, Black farming and the entire ecosystem can be gone because of cavalier, reckless, inconsiderate actions by Nicor,” said Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter of the Pembroke Environmental Justice Coalition. “Our farmers will suffer the environmental, economic, and emotional impacts of disruptive pipeline construction, but natural gas service will be prohibitively expensive for us. We want to lead the way to a clean energy future. We don’t want this pipeline.”
“When community perspectives aren’t meaningfully considered, inequities in our energy system are perpetuated, Black household budgets are over-burdened, and real lives are put at risk. Utilities provide life essential services where affordability is key,” said Naomi Davis, Executive Director of Blacks in Green. “As gas continues to rise, shutoffs increase, and wealthier customers move to electric heat, Nicor customers are left to pay for this new pipeline for decades to come – regardless of whether a single customer in Pembroke uses their gas.”
Pembroke Township is about 100 miles south of Chicago. It was founded by freedom-seeking enslaved people in the 1860’s, was once the largest Black farming community north of the Mason-Dixon line and is an independent Black agricultural hub to this day. Generations of families have been meticulous stewards of the land there. As a predominantly Black and low-income community, Pembroke would qualify for clean energy programs and funding under Illinois’ new equity-focused climate law – an idea that is widely popular in the community.
Pembroke’s rich biodiversity and healthy ecosystem have been preserved so well that its environment remains much as it was hundreds of years ago. It is home to the remaining Black Oak Savanna that covered more than a million acres when glaciers retreated from the region.
In spite of all those circumstances, the Illinois Commerce Commission granted Nicor the authority to construct, operate and maintain more than 30 miles of new pipes and facilities in the area to bring natural gas to a few hundred customers in one-tenth of the township. Residents in Pembroke have said they do not want or need the natural gas, and in many cases would be financially unable to use it because of the high and largely unsubsidized cost of converting to the fuel. Nicor plans to use easements to construct the new pipeline on or near farm areas. Disturbances associated with construction would destroy soil composition and structure, generate uncompensated financial loss for local farmers, and threaten the safety of both farmland and the Black Oak Savanna.
The groups are appealing to the courts on the grounds that the Illinois Commerce Commission’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, did not recognize Nicor’s failure to meet statutory requirements, and contravened the governing law. Pembroke Environmental Justice Coalition is represented by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
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