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Judge denies landowners' effort to stop Illinois' new fracking rules from taking effect

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ST. LOUIS — A judge in southwestern Illinois has denied a bid by a landowners group to suspend the state's new rules for high-volume oil and gas drilling, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show they would suffer immediate harm if the practice commonly known as "fracking" was to go forward.

Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder rejected the request for a preliminary injunction on Friday, three days after she heard arguments about the rules meant to regulate hydraulic fracturing.

Attorneys for the landowners had insisted that the rules drafted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and approved Nov. 6 by a legislative panel were procedurally flawed, among other things because the DNR allegedly didn't consider scientific studies and had no representative available to answer questions at statewide public hearings last year. Attorneys for the state countered that the public had had sufficient input.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Vito Mastrangelo, said Sunday that the landowners, including him, and the group Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, would decide Monday whether to appeal Crowder's decision or await further proceedings before her about the lawsuit. Crowder's ruling Friday dealt with merely whether the rules taking effect would cause "immediate" harm — a worry that a state attorney dismissed during the hearing as premature.

"We will pursue it, one way or another," Mastrangelo said. Friday's development "is very disappointing because we thought we made a very clear case that the (DNR) didn't follow statutory rules for rule-making. That means now there are invalid rules, the DNR will be implementing them and drillers will be applying for permits based on them."

Two spokesmen for the DNR didn't immediately respond to Sunday voicemails seeking comment.

"At this point, I don't consider anything a significant setback," said Annette McMichael, a spokeswoman for the anti-fracking group. "We've had so many setbacks in the year and a half since the bill was signed, but we just keep forging ahead. We are never, ever going away."

Fracking generally uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack rock formations deep underground and release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it can cause air and water pollution and health problems. Industry officials contend the method is safe and will create needed jobs in southern Illinois.

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