Clear and Present Danger: The Advocate

Target 3
“I was surprised that gas was kept in that that fashion. And then, here was the fact that the gas seemed to be migrating out of the the underground storage where it was supposed to stay.”

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WCIA) — Crop damage. Bubbling water in ditch banks. Contaminated water sources. Diminished property value.

The Solomon family brought this list of grievances to Ruth Robinson, a Rockford-based agricultural attorney in 2015 and enlisted her help in a fight to try to shut down the massive underground natural gas storage facility that lies beneath their centennial farm.

A legal complaint filed on her behalf outlines decades of similar complaints from other farm families who sold property rights to Nicor when the gas company first came to town in the early 1960s.

Like the other families, the Solomons, too, saw within a decade evidence that suggested the gas wasn’t staying underground, where the company said it would. Their land, too, was dotted with circles of crop death.

Shots of crop death on Solomon farmland

When they decided they had had enough, they sought help from Robinson, a lawyer who had both an environmental focus in law and owned farmland herself.

She reviewed agreements made with the company as far back as the 1960s, photos of dead plants taken from crop dusting planes, a Nicor-funded geological study by Illinois State University in 2007, permits issued after Illinois Commerce Commission hearings and pieced the fragments together.

“If you look at this, objectively, in my opinion, there’s there’s one conclusion: That the cap rock — the lid — is not working,” she said in an interview with WCIA. “Obviously, the gas if it’s coming up to the surface and killing crops, it’s not staying down where the (agreement) says that it’s supposed to stay.”

In a statement, Nicor denied the allegations the lawsuit brings against the company and declined to provide an interview about the company’s storage practices.

“Nicor Gas will not comment on the private lawsuit regarding the Ancona underground storage facility other than to say that we deny the allegations. Nicor Gas is a good neighbor to surrounding landowners and meets or exceeds rigorous environmental and safety standards under state and federal rules and regulations,” Jennifer Golz, a spokesperson for the company, wrote in an email to WCIA.

Robinson believed the Solomons had a strong enough case to sue Nicor and demand that the company immediately repair the facility or that it “stop storing gas there, since it’s not staying where it’s supposed to.”

A Livingston County judge rejected the case.

“The court felt that it was appropriate to take that issue to the Illinois Commerce Commission,” she said, adding that the ICC was the government agency that allowed Nicor the permit for gas storage.

But an informal complaint filed in 2017 with the ICC on behalf of the Solomons went nowhere.

So they went back to Robinson, who went back to court.

“We did refile a subsequent lawsuit in 2018 for trespass and nuisance,” she said. “We don’t have the argument that we want the facility shut down because, in the court’s mind, that’s an ICC decision. …Our position is that we’ve got trespass, we’ve got a nuisance, and that should be remedied and rectified.”

Because the agreements Nicor made with the area landowners in the 1960s said the gas would stay underground, Robinson hopes to prove that the dead plants across Solomon fields and the bubbling in their wells means that the methane is “trespassing” by coming above ground. Robinson also argues that because methane has killed the crops and leaked into the atmosphere, the courts should consider the issue a public nuisance.

“I represent the landowner; I don’t represent the public. But in my opinion, there’s also just a public issue here. You look at the photographic evidence and you can see the crop death, so that tells you that there’s at least a lot of gas coming out, killing the crop. That’s a fair amount of gas. Do you want that in your back yard?”

Crop death shot, August 2020.

That suit, stalled by the onset of coronavirus earlier this year, is still pending.

“Nothing has happened,” Robinson told WCIA in an update Wednesday. “Crickets from Nicor — and from my client, I’m still aware of the presence of gas leaking.”

Robinson is the lone attorney facing a team of Nicor’s lawyers who, after she filed the initial complaint in 2015, came ready with “a lot of opposition with a lot of motions, and motions to dismiss, and a lot of discovery.”

It’s a fight against a multi-billion dollar company that she’s not sure her clients can sustain.

“I represent a landowner that doesn’t have a ton of money,” she said. “So that was a tough battle to maintain.”

Until the matter “hits (Nicor’s) pocketbook,” Robinson said, “nobody is going to care.”

But for Patrica Solomon, the matter is particularly personal: She inherited a legal fight that her parents Robert and Joyce Solomon started before they died in 2018 and 2019. The farm has been in the family since the 1840s.

“It’s a centennial farm, and so it’s got some personal meaning to them to maintain that, but they don’t have tons of money to continue to try to maintain this action,” Robinson said. “I don’t know Nicor’s net worth, but it’s a large company. They’re defending their right to maintain this easement, and that’s fine. I understand that legal argument.

“But the issue here if they are overstepping the bounds of their easement by having this gas come up into the air and kill the crops and potentially affect (or) accelerate global climate change — this is just one situation. How many of these type of situations are out there?”

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