How One Midwife Is Trying to Stop Miscarriages and Birth Defects in a Utah Fracking Boomtown
A new feature in July’s issue of Rolling Stone has put the spotlight on fracking in a small Utah town, and asks the question: “What’s Killing the Babies of Vernal, Utah?”
Much of the feature follows the practice of Donna Young, a Vernal, UT, midwife in her fifties. Young sleeps with a .45 Taurus Judge with laser attachment under her pillow every night, claiming that she’s under threat from pro-fracking town residents who say she’s out to destroy the oil boomtown’s economy.
How are they connected? Young claims that fracking emissions in the past five years have hit dangerous levels in the small town, which is located in the Uintah Basin between mountains; as a result, they’ve resulted in stillbirths, birth defects, and miscarriages for many of the Vernal’s pregnant women.
Young pointed out that many of her clients gave birth to babies with severe defects, including clubfoot, tongue-tied and lip-tied infants, and one with a severe vision defect. After one baby died immediately following birth, Young was interrogated by police, who believed the home birth she presided over had something to do with the incident.
Heartbroken over the infant’s loss, Young tried to find a common link between the mothers and their children. She then discovered that all of the women lived in about the same part of town, which has high emissions due to trucks transporting oil from fracking facilities.
Young then paired up with Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist from Salt Lake City and co-founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. He helped her come up with some temporary solutions for her patients, like urging them to stay indoors on days with bad air quality, and equipping mothers’ homes with air filters.
Their efforts to examine the link between fracking and infant deaths or birth defects was documented in the Salt Lake Tribune — and that’s when the backlash hit and Young found herself on the receiving end of abuse from town residents. Calls poured in with threats, and Young even claims that someone tried to poison her livestock.
But Young’s claim may not be as far-fetched as some people may think. In December 2014, a study was released by the Center for Environmental Health that linked the chemicals associated with fracking to infertility, miscarriage, impaired fetal growth, low birth weight and lasting birth defects– everything that Young has seen firsthand as a midwife.
Most recently, Young said that of her five clients, four lost their babies to miscarriages in the span of just two weeks. The women all reported to Young that their tap water tasted odd, so Young tested it and revealed that it contained 7,000 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a deadly gas released in the fracking process.
Rolling Stone writer Paul Solotaroff investigated the town’s fracking site and crunched numbers to determine the amount of pollution in the area.
Solotaroff cited one study from Colorado, which found that fracking a well involves more than 1,400 truck trips to haul oil and take wastewater to be dumped into evaporation ponds. Much of that wastewater comes from the “slickwater” comprised of toxic solvents in the hydraulic fracturing process, which was perfected by big oil company Halliburton.
Fracking has also come under scrutiny from environmental advocates, who claim that the chemicals affect groundwater supplies. Viral videos on the internet have shown residents of fracking towns lighting their tap water on fire to show the amount of chemical contamination in their groundwater.
The wastewater dumped in evaporation ponds has caused numerous problems across the United States in recent years, affecting drinking water for millions of Americans. This typically results in extensive remediation efforts by environmental contracting services.
Last year, millions of gallons from a spill polluted the Yellowstone River after coming out of leaky pipes in North Dakota.
In Pennsylvania, 53 spills occurred in 2014 alone. One of those resulted in a $4 million fine for the offender, Range Resources.
Fumes from the wastewater have also caused deaths for oil workers, stillborn calves for cows, and cancer in local children, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.