Small Utah Town Sees Spike in Infant Mortality After Frackers Move In

A midwife in Vernal, Utah, has raised a red flag about a spike in the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the small town in 2013.

The concern has arisen alongside explosive growth in drilling and fracking in the area. Energy companies have flocked to Vernal in the last few years to develop massive oil and gas fields beneath Uintah County.

The midwife, Donna Young, who has worked in the Vernal area for 19 years, delivered the first stillborn baby she's seen in all her years of practice in May 2013. Doctors could not determine a reason for the baby's death.

While visiting the local cemetery where the baby was buried, Young noticed other fresh graves of babies who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth.

Young started researching obituaries and mortuary records on stillbirths and neonatal deaths and found a large spike in the number of infant deaths in the Vernal area in recent years. She documented 11 other incidents in 2013 in which Vernal mothers had given birth to stillborn babies or in which babies died within a few days of being born. Vernal's full-time population is only about 9,800.

Young found that the rate of neonatal deaths in Vernal has climbed from about equivalent to the national average in 2010 to six times the national average in 2013.

Along with the surge in oil and gas drilling in the Vernal area in the last few years, the winter air in the Uintah basin, where Vernal sits, has become dense with industrial smog generated by drilling rigs, pipelines, wells and increased traffic.

Utah's state Department of Health has said it will foot the bill to study the spike in neonatal deaths in Vernal, but area residents are skeptical the state may use outdated statistics or otherwise design the study to fail amid political pressure to abandon the research.

A similar situation occurred in nearby Garfield County, Colo., in April 2014 when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said it would conduct a similar study on an abnormally high rate of fetal abnormalities found in heavily drilled Garfield County, on Colorado's western slope.

Less than a month after the agency announced it would undertake the study, the department quietly issued a report saying it found no link between the fetal abnormalities and drilling activity in Garfield County.

But the Colorado study had glaring gaps.

For example, the agency failed to analyze the air or water in subjects' homes for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other contaminants emitted by drilling operations, pipelines or storage facilities. The report looked only at the distance the subjects lived from active wells, without considering the proximity of their homes to drilling-related equipment and facilities known to vent or leak VOCs, such as finished wells, pipelines, storage tanks and compressors.

The study also failed to consider a significant leak of hydrocarbons into Parachute Creek, near the west end of Garfield County, which occurred in late 2012 and early 2013. In that event, an estimated 40,000 gallons of hydrocarbons evaporated into the air, and 10,000 gallons of liquid hydrocarbons spilled into Parchute Creek, which empties into the Colorado River. 

The Utah Department of Health gave no indication of whether it intends to test for drilling-related chemical contamination in homes of the mothers of stillborn babies or when the study might be completed. 

Citizens have been trying to address the worsening air pollution in the Uintah Basin for years.  

In 2007, the Western Energy Alliance, formerly the Petroleum Association of Mountain States, succeeded in killing a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to study the effects of thousands of new oil and gas wells on air pollution in the Vernal area. Industry documents show that Bill Stringer, who then headed BLM's Vernal office, pushed to have an industry-controlled study substituted for the BLM study. That study was released in 2009 and concluded, not unexpectedly, that drilling had “no unacceptable effects on human health” in the Vernal area.

Stringer's industry-friendly Vernal BLM office approved an average of 555 new oil and gas wells in the Vernal area each year.

By early 2010, air monitors in the Vernal area were registering ozone levels among the worst in the country, on par with Los Angeles.

In 2012, a coalition of conservation and public health groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the Uintah Basin's air from increasingly high levels of ozone.

The next move in the battle over the Uintah Basin's air quality now lies squarely in the lap of the Utah Department of Health.

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