It was never Donna Young’s plan to raise a racket about fracking. She grew up around coal mines and bears no brief against the grunts who work the rigs and the men who own them. “I’ve got one son commuting to North Dakota” to work a rig and “another who’s done every job there is, from tearing down the rigs, putting them on flatbeds and driving ’em clear back from Kansas,” she says. “I believe we can live with drilling — as long as the politicians make sure it’s done responsibly.”
But then, nothing in Young’s life has gone to plan — not that she minds the left turns. The impulse to become a midwife at 39, then move back to Utah nine years later so she could help her ailing father run his ranch — it’s all been improvised and guided by feel. She was born in Moab to a Mormon family, raised around horses and miners and men on old tractors who came home reeking of cow shit. Her father was a range rider for the Bureau of Land Management who bred and trained racehorses on the side.
When he retired to Idaho, Young joined her folks there and opened a health-food store. A mother of two, she earned a degree in naturopathy, then found her true vocation, birthing babies. “I’d been working with lots of people, some cancer patients and chronically sick people, and here were these clients who had a clean slate — or would have, if their moms had ate healthy. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m put here to do. Bring ’em into the world with no drugs or toxins, then teach the moms to raise them that way.’ ”
After 20 years and hundreds of births, Young has every reason to be proud. But in the fall of 2013, her client Caren Moon was pregnant with her third child and not doing well in the first trimester. She was cramping a lot and feeling weak; Young ordered bed rest and a natural progesterone cream to help with the bouts of mild bleeding. Moon was up on her feet again shortly, chasing after her toddlers, both birthed by Young. Then, the week before Thanksgiving, an early snowstorm led in a cold-air inversion. Moon felt ill again, took to bed, and lost the pregnancy while her house was filled with holiday guests. “It was right in that period of heavy ozone,” Moon says. “I thought we’d taken all the precautions.”
The Moons live on Bonanza Highway, a major conduit between Vernal and the oil fields due south. All day and into the night, massive trucks barreled by, farting CO and diesel soot that hung over the yard like clouds of no-see-ums. Five minutes east, her friend Melissa Morgan was also struggling to keep her baby. “I got pregnant about the same time Caren did, and was sick with all the stuff that she had — bleeding, cramping, feeling bad when I went out,” says Morgan. “There was a horrible, thick haze hanging around here for weeks. You could see it when you drove up the mountain and looked back at just this blanket of gray . . . yuck.”
Morgan spent weeks on bed rest while women from her church cooked and looked after her kids. The baby, her fifth, somehow made it to term, but weighed nearly a third less than her previous four and was in and out of doctors’ offices until she was eight months old. “It’s a miracle she’s here at all,” says Morgan. “When I saw the placenta, it was small and deformed, like it had used up all its tissue to protect her.”
heard some version of that tale all over town. Avery Lawton, a radiant redhead, was pregnant that winter with her second child, but the fetus wasn’t growing. It was so frail at 30 weeks that an obstetrician told her it could die during labor, and she should deliver at the hospital and not at home. Defying him, she went for a second, and third, opinion; her daughter, almost two now, was born with a rare and profound vision disorder, for which she wears Coke-bottle goggles.
In all the years Young has delivered babies, she says this was her first with a birth defect — and four more followed in 15 months. A girl with a shredded epiglottis, choking her when she tried to feed; a boy born tongue-tied and with a clubfoot; a girl born tongue-tied and lip-tied as well, preventing her from latching onto her mother’s breast. All required surgeries days after birth. Still others were born tiny or with mangled placentas — but at least they were alive and intact.
In May 2013, Young delivered a girl who was pink and fully formed; the child never took her first breath. She came out of her mother and collapsed in her arms; Young performed CPR, then raced her to the Ashley Regional Medical Center while the mother remained at home. She called 911 on the way, and a uniformed officer escorted her into the emergency room. Efforts to revive the child proved useless, however, and Young, who was heartsick and staggered by the loss, decided to join the mother at home. But a staffer, Young claims, wouldn’t let her leave the building. She says he put Young and her daughter Holt, a 15-year-old who often accompanies her during the births, in a room. (“We did not prevent Ms. Young from leaving our hospital,” a spokeswoman for ARMC said via e-mail. “Police onsite who were gathering information may have, but no one from our hospital was involved in that.”) After an hour, Young says, she was let go at the insistence of the dead infant’s father. She got home at 5 a.m. and wept and paced her bedroom well past sunup.
At 10 a.m. that day, a detective drove out and interrogated Young. She explained how a typical home birth happens and took him through the evening step by step. At the end, he concluded she’d done nothing wrong and declared the matter closed from his end. Devastated, she joined the bereaved parents at the graveside that week. There, at Rock Point Cemetery in Vernal, an acquaintance pulled her aside and whispered, “This isn’t the only baby to die this year.” She led Young to a pair of fresh-dug graves; two newborns had been laid to rest there since the first of the year. Young went home and combed through online obits: four other babies from Vernal or close by had died already that year. It was a shockingly big number for a small town.
Then she plotted the coordinates of the dead, and another bolt went through her. Three of the babies, including the one she’d just lost, were from moms who lived or worked near the intersection of 500 West and 500 South, a four-way stop sign that bottlenecks traffic and forces big-rig drivers to brake-start-brake, which drapes the block in shrouds of hydrocarbons. “Looking back, there were red flags,” says Young. “Every time I’d visit for a checkup, I’d come back with a splitting headache and my eyes and nose running.”
Five more babies would die that year, bringing the body count to at least 10 in Vernal; three more were lost in towns nearby. Young searched back to the start of the decade. In 2010, there were two, about average for a small town, then one in 2011 and four in 2012, including one whose mom worked at the senior facility on that smog-bound corner. And then the big jump in 2013, on the heels of a historic run in production that began a decade earlier.
The Uintah Basin alone was home to more than 11,000 wells – that’s an enormous concentration of soot and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) drifting into Vernal, then sitting there; in that inversion-filled winter, the VOC count was equivalent to 100 million cars’ exhaust. Reached for comment about the region’s pollution, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a trade association for the drillers, said,
“We acknowledged that the emissions were our responsibility, [and] have worked with the state to reduce them.” Asked about a link between those toxins and infant deaths, Sgamma said that “the epidemiologist showed there was not enough data to find the cause, and to make the jump you’re making is not supported.”
By June 2013, Young had seen enough. Accompanied by Bo Hunter, her 23-year-old son, she paid a call on Joe Shaffer, the TriCounty health director. She didn’t know these mothers or their medical histories — so had no idea what was killing their babies — and acknowledges that the cause may never be determined. But she was acutely fearful for her other clients’ babies and wanted Shaffer’s advice on keeping them safe. She and Hunter say she’d barely broached the subject of infant losses when Shaffer admitted he too had concerns about the air quality in Vernal and the effect it might have on area families, including his own. (Shaffer, who retired in the summer of 2014 and hasn’t spoken publicly since he left, was reached by phone at his home but declined to comment.)
Frantic now, Young called a local advocacy group, who connected her with Dr. Brian Moench. Moench, an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City who co-founded Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is a cross between Bill Nye and Bill McKibben, a science-geek activist and erudite spokesman for a growing clean-air coalition.
With the roughly 350 doctors in Utah he’s recruited to the cause, he and his colleagues gathered dozens of studies about pollution and its long- and short-term damage to the unborn. “What we know now,” he says, “from several blue-ribbon studies, is that the chemicals Mom inhales in industrial zones are passed to her baby through the umbilical cord, exposing them to many complications. We also know these toxins like to live in fat cells — and the brain is the largest fat reservoir in a developing fetus.”
At Moench’s urging, Young ordered her clients to stay in on bad air-quality days, and to equip their homes with high-end filters that trapped both soot and gases. Finally, in May 2014, LeFevre, the state health official, met with the TriCounty Health Department to present his proposed method to study the deaths. It would not, however, look at environmental factors; this was strictly about the statistical significance of the infant deaths.
That might have been the end of it if not for Moench. He looped in a contact at The Salt Lake Tribune, who sent a writer down to cover the announcement. For the next two days, the Tribune ran page-one stories about Young’s efforts to learn the truth about those deaths.
That’s when some people in Vernal started to turn on Donna Young. The phone calls went on for months. Several times a week she’d pick up the phone to snarling curses and personal accusations that she was “trying to bust up the economy.” Staffers at Ashley Regional Medical Center trashed her to clients, she says, and denounced her in online comments as a baby killer. (The ARMC spokeswoman denies this, adding that “if anyone employed by our facility said this, it was not on behalf of our hospital.”)
Ben Cluff, its CEO, threatened Young with legal action for “[communicating] inaccurate information regarding the number of infant deaths at our facility.” When Young took Avery Lawton for an ultrasound there, both women recall that a staffer told Young that everyone was out to destroy her, “and it’s political.”
It’s sad but unsurprising that Young would get pushback from a town that leans on oil as much as Vernal. Since crude was first pumped in this High Plains town shortly after World War II, its fortunes have tracked the price point of gas, riding its fluctuations up and down. Then along came the fracking boom, which extracted fossil fuels at rates undreamt of 10 years back, and Vernal was suddenly awash in real money.
Virtually the whole west side is newly constructed, with big-box chain stores, midrange hotels and three brewpubs serving the roughnecks who rent the prefab townhomes. Oil money helped fund the new City Hall, as well as the 32-acre convention center, one of the largest such spreads in the West. There’s the juice bar hawking T-shirts that say ‘I Heart Drilling,’ the July 4th parade featuring girls on derrick floats and the yearly golf tourney called Petroleum Days.
So it’s moot to expect much Green Party ferment from a place where boys quit high school in boom years to work the rigs at 16. But where are all the worried parents? “A huge number of my kids have breathing problems — it averages six or seven in every class,” says Rodd Repsher, a health teacher at Uintah High who hails from Pennsylvania. “Come January, they’re out sick for a week at a time. I never saw anything like it back home,” says another teacher, who relocated from the Northeast.
I met the two teachers at a town-hall forum led by Moench and three of his colleagues from Salt Lake City. Though they’d papered the town with fliers about the forum — a primer on pollution and ways to protect your family from it — and invited the mayor, Sonya Nelson, and the three Uintah County commissioners, only 40 people showed up at the Vernal Junior High School auditorium. Several were Young’s clients and their husbands and kids. Young was there, too, along with her daughter Holt. As a precaution, she’d brought a bodyguard.
In an easy-to-follow slide show about the air in the Basin and its calamitous level of pollution, Moench and his fellow doctors, two of them obstetricians, spent an hour and a half building a brick-by-brick indictment against the effect of those toxins on fetal neurons. “Think of them as bullets to developing brain cells,” said Moench. “They either kill some of those cells, alter them or switch them off, blocking their connections to other cells.” Citing a wave of new studies that link inhaled contaminants to everything from diabetes and obesity to ADD, he added that babies “are being born now pre-polluted. Lower IQs, less serotonin, less white-brain matter: We’re literally changing who they are as human beings.”