Akin Carter and his father Fred work on a tractor on their farm in Pembroke Township. | Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Farmers cite environmental and safety concerns. It also would tie Hopkins Park to fossil fuels and, according to one senator,‘ threatens to replace the last community of African American farmers in Illinois.’

With a big push from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Nicor natural gas pipeline proposed for a Black farming community in Kankakee County has moved a step closer even as some who live in the area and environmentalists continue to fight the project.

In the final hours of the legislative session that ended early on June 1, Illinois legislators approved a package to help fund Nicor’s proposed gas line to the village of Hopkins Park in Pembroke Township.

If Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signs the measure into law — he hasn’t said whether he will — it would move the community into a decades-long fossil fuel commitment at the same time Illinois political leaders promise they’re working toward a clean energy future.

The pipeline is opposed by a small group of farmers who say they are worried about the environmental impacts and have safety concerns.

The farmers found support from environmentalists in opposing the $10 million plan, which needed legislative approval for taxpayer and gas customer subsidies.

But the bill was passed with overwhelming support by lawmakers, many who say they were swayed by the argument that natural gas will spur economic development in the poor, rural community.

“There’s been gross misrepresentation here,” Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter, a farmer and pipeline opponent, told state legislators at a hearing in May.

While a number of business and political proponents endorsed the idea of adding more than 30 miles of a gas pipeline through the poor, rural area, more than 500 people publicly opposed the plan, according to legislative records.

In addition to Jackson, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., a county economic development group and a real estate agents’ association were among about 200 individuals and organizations voicing support.

The plan calls for initially extending gas lines to several hundred residents of Hopkins Park.

Opponents say they’re worried about the potential impact on farms and on a rare black oak savanna, though Nicor says the line will follow roads and not go through forests or farmland.

Pembroke Township and Hopkins Park together are home to only about 2,500 people. But the debate over the pipeline grew much broader as the Illinois Environmental Council, representing more than 100 organizations, lobbied in recent weeks against the plan, saying lawmakers should listen to the opponents and not support the addition of harmful fossil fuels even as the state considers steps toward a renewable energy future.

Two things that both sides of the debate agree on:

With a rich history as what once was the largest Black farming community in the northern United States, Pembroke Township has been in sharp decline for decades .
The world is moving away from natural gas and other fossil fuels in favor of renewable, cleaner energy alternatives.

Pembroke residents largely rely on propane gas or electricity for heat. A small number use wood-burning stoves.

Much of the debate has centered on the cost of the infrastructure required for renewable energy sources vs. natural gas as well as on the process of spelling out to people who live in the area what’s involved.

“This is a purposely disinvested area of the state, and, of course, we want investment in these areas,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “But, even if it goes through, there should be a full public process.”

Todd Yeary, chief administrative officer of Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, calls the lack of natural gas and reliance on more costly propane in Pembroke Township a form of “energy poverty.” Also, Yeary said, green alternatives are too far in the future.

“Your conversion is not going to be as fast as they’re selling,” he said.

Yeary said Jackson got involved after speaking with Hopkins Park Mayor Mark Hodge, the key figure behind the plan.

Hodge said that having a natural gas connection will attract businesses and that Nicor’s surveys have shown great interest among residents for getting natural gas.

“This is a vital resource the community needs,” Hodge said. “This community has been underserved and undermined for decades.”

Among the leading opponents of the plan have been Wright-Carter and her husband Fred Carter. They work to promote sustainable agriculture through their nonprofit Black Oaks Center. Wright-Carter said the community — which was founded by Black farmers in the late 1800s and is believed to have been a terminal for the Underground Railroad — has a long history of environmental stewardship.

“The Black farmers of Pembroke were very, very conscious of caring for the environment,” Wright-Carter told supporters on a video call this past week.

The future that Wright-Carter and some other Pembroke farmers envision is for the area to become a hub for sustainable agriculture and clean energy.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times
Dr. Jifunza Wright-Carter and her husband Fred Carter promote sustainable agriculture through their nonprofit Black Oaks Center in Pembroke Township.

Despite the controversy, the bill passed the House and Senate by wide margins.

“This is really something that’s been a decades-long initiative,” said state Rep. Jackie Haas, R-Bourbonnais, who sponsored the measure in the House. “The community has been looking to move forward.”

State Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, said he sees the plan as a threat to Black farmers and the environment.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/ Sun-Times
State Sen. Mike Simmons: “This is something that threatens to replace the last community of African American farmers in Illinois.”

“My fear with the pipeline is it could jeopardize the habitat,” said Simmons, who voted against the bill. “More importantly, it could provide an environmental hazard for the farmers. This is something that threatens to replace the last community of African American farmers in Illinois.”

In a written statement, Nicor officials said the company isn’t pushing the project, just responding to demand from the community.

The company said the bill’s passage was a “major milestone in helping deserving communities grow and have better energy choice.”

The utility, a division of Southern Co., called the effort “a longtime, organic initiative driven by the residents of the community.”

Abe Scarr, state director for the consumer advocacy group Illinois PIRG, said Nicor’s key motive is to build its business in the face of a future that’s likely to see more people relying less on fossil fuels.

“For Nicor, the strategy right now is to up their rate base,” Scarr said. Southern Co. has been “very explicit that rate base growth is important to driving shareholder value.”

Scarr also questions Hodge’s assertion that the cost of bringing renewable energy to the area would be far too expensive.

“It’s also unaffordable for Nicor to do it,” Scarr said of the pipeline plan. “That’s why they’re getting this subsidization. It’s not surprising that there’s cost barriers from either direction. But that’s not stopping a gas pipeline.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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