VIENNA — Officials in southern Illinois' Johnson County will soon learn where their constituents stand on fracking, as voters will signal whether the county should resist efforts to use the contentious extraction method to get at any oil or gas that may be trapped deep underground.
The question of whether to oppose possible efforts to bring hydraulic fracturing to the county has hijacked the County Commission meetings for months and pitted neighbors against one another. And whatever voters decide Tuesday, the issue isn't likely to go away anytime soon.
"It's been a long time since we've had so much controversy about an outside issue — so much that at every county board meeting, this has come up since last summer. Every meeting," groans Robin Harper-Whitehead, the county's longtime clerk.
"We've gotten to the point where neighbors are mad at neighbors over this issue, and it's sad," added Ernie Henshaw, a second-term commissioner.
Voters will be asked whether the commission should oppose any effort to begin fracking in Johnson County. The process involves blasting rock formations deep underground with water, sand and chemicals to release trapped oil and gas.
Fracking proponents say it could provide the economic jolt needed to revive Johnson County's struggling economy, pointing to the great boon it has been in some places, most notably North Dakota. Opponents worry about the possible risks it poses to public health and the environment, including the groundwater.
The outcome of Tuesday's referendum isn't binding. It essentially will serve as an advisory to the county commission about local sentiment regarding fracking. The Legislature passed a law last year allowing fracking in the state, and the state Department of Natural Resources is in the process of drafting rules to govern the practice.
The DNR recently got an earful during five public hearings intended to help it identify ways of improving the fracking rules, though none of the suggestions will undo the legislation despite opponents' pleas for a fracking ban.
That hasn't stopped anti-fracking forces from trying to assert local control, zeroing in on Johnson County despite questions about whether it even has sizeable underground oil reserves. The industry is eyeing the New Albany Shale formation in southern Illinois, where they hope that significant oil deposits lie 5,000 feet or more below the surface.
Henshaw, the commissioner, said that because Johnson County is on that formation's edge, he doesn't think it's likely that it is sitting on oil riches. He cast the referendum as the work of meddling outside environmentalists looking to make a stand in Illinois, and said that moving to restrict fracking could put the county in the crosshairs of costly lawsuits by the energy industry and landowners willing to lease their acreage for drilling.
"I don't think we have any legal standing to ban fracking in the county, and arbitrarily doing it is almost a guarantee you're going to end up in court," he said. "Johnson County has no more right to ban fracking than we do sitting down at our next meeting and saying the speed limit is going to be 80 mph."
Those behind the ballot measure say communities must act proactively to protect themselves.
"No amount of rules can make fracking safe, nor can it save our water," said Annette McMichael, a Johnson County spokeswoman for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, which helped spearhead Tuesday's ballot initiative. "We cannot trust the state to keep us safe."
In her ceramics shop on Vienna's town square, Lori Sanders welcomes fracking as "a good thing" that could lure new people to the struggling town. Gazing out at the county courthouse across the deserted street, she adds: "If you don't have to walk on the square to pay your taxes, there'd be no one here."
A few blocks away in her home sporting an anti-fracking sign in her front yard, Joan Cook frets about the possible fallout from fracking.
"Once (the drillers) get what they want from the ground, they leave. And the ground will never be the same," said Cook, 49, who serves as a caregiver to her live-in mother. "Stay out of my county, and I pray to God that's the way it's gonna be."
Turnout in recent spring elections among Johnson County's roughly 8,000 registered voters has ranged from 36 to 42 percent, said Harper-Whitehead, the county clerk. She said the 315 ballots cast during the early-voting period is lower than usual, but speculated that it might be because those on the fence about fracking are still researching the subject.
"I'll be glad when this election is over," she said. "But I don't know if this issue will be over whether it's a yes or no vote. And that's what's scary."