In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking

Jacki Schilke is convinced that the oil drilling around her home near Williston, North Dakota, is responsible for her family's health problems. Can she convince the government to take action?

The first symptom was a rash on Jacki Schilke’s nose. It appeared late in the winter of 2009 and was soon followed by a flood of other health problems afflicting Schilke, her husband, their dog, and many of the animals on their 160-acre ranch near Williston, North Dakota -- a tiny town in the state’s northwest corner that has become the epicenter of the recent Great Plains oil and gas boom.

Winters are long and cold here, and animals die from time to time; that’s just a fact of life on the dry, hilly prairie. Long hours in the fields, together with a second job, can wear a body down. Schilke’s face shows it in hard lines and weathered skin. At 53, she’s short and sturdy, with a ponytail of straw-colored hair. She says she’s always been healthy. But since that winter, her body, along with everything and everyone around her, seems to have deteriorated.

Schilke lost 25 pounds in the summer of 2009 and started having trouble breathing. She had constant diarrhea and would get lightheaded. Her husband Steve’s asthma worsened, frequently leaving him tired and short of breath. The couple began getting unusual muscle aches. The following winter, Jacki got another rash, a quarter-sized spot on her leg that wouldn’t go away. She visited a neurologist who couldn’t explain what was happening. She noticed an ammonia-like smell in the house and started looking for a source, thinking that might be what was making them sick. "Hell, I hauled shit out of here by truckloads," Jacki says. "I threw everything away. There wasn’t even a bottle of cleaner left in this house."

In June 2010, the couple’s Yorkie, Blue, got bloody diarrhea and started coughing up mucus. They had to put him to sleep a few days later. Soon after, the water from a well they used for their animals started bubbling, "like 7UP." Then the creek behind the house started bubbling, too, with a frothy film forming on the water’s surface and white residue appearing on the creek bank. The Schilkes started hauling water in from town. In August, Jacki was out feeding her bull one morning when she lost strength and fell to her knees. From that spot, she could see a giant drilling rig across the property line, a few thousand feet from her house. "It just kind of clicked," she says.

While the Schilkes and their animals were suffering from one ailment after another, oil companies were establishing new wells ever closer to their home. At the beginning of 2009, Brigham Oil and Gas began putting in a series of wells about nine miles south, along the route that Jacki often took to Williston, where she managed a bar until she became too sick. That summer Brigham drilled a well six miles to the west of the Schilkes’s ranch, and another one six miles to the south. In January 2010, Oasis Petroleum began drilling the first of two wells a couple of miles to the east. Finally, Oasis put in two wells right on the edge of the Schilkes’s property. There are now dozens of wells in the area, including four within a mile of their home, each sporting gas flares billowing smoke into the sky.

The oil and gas boom in North Dakota is like nothing this state has ever seen. Over the last several years, nearly 50,000 men have come from every corner of America to find work in an oilfield that now measures 18,000 square miles. The massive Bakken shale formation and its related Three Forks and Tyler shale formations are said by geologists to contain nearly 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil. These days landmen, the advance guard of the oil production industry, swarm the state’s county clerks’ offices, racing each other to lock up private mineral leases. Energy companies are drilling about 200 new wells each month in western North Dakota, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

The bottom line: the state’s energy companies produced 578,191 barrels of oil a day in February 2012, taken from 6,700 wells. Almost nine out of every 10 of those barrels -- roughly half a million of them -- were produced by the nearly 3,400 wells to be found in the Bakken formation. The resource is worth $55 million a day, at current market prices, and generates $5 million a day in state tax revenue, according to state officials. Just a few days ago, figures were released that show North Dakota surpassed Alaska to become the nation’s second largest oil producer; production could very well top a million barrels per day sometime next year.

Like the gas wells that have covered neighborhoods from Texas to Pennsylvania in recent years, North Dakota’s new oil wells are deeper and longer than ever before, and they are hydraulically fractured with millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals used to shatter the earth and release its contents. Though fracking was initially used to target natural gas formations, companies are increasingly using the practice in North Dakota and other states to extract oil from similar types of rock. In 2009, state officials told the local press that the new oil development appeared to be releasing far more chemicals into the air than conventional drilling. Storage tanks, which hold oil before it is trucked away from the well sites, were venting the same volatile organic compounds that are emitted in large quantities from shale gas operations.

Although a handful of North Dakota residents have complained about odors or health effects from drilling near their homes, the Schilkes are the first in the region to report such widespread and sustained health problems. But while their symptoms may be new to North Dakota, they mirror those reported in recent years in gas fields from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Residents of several states have experienced a suite of symptoms -- including rashes, congestion, dizziness, nausea, and even cancer -- that they say began when drilling and fracking came to their neighborhoods.

In Pennsylvania, home to some of the most intensive shale drilling in the country, the top health official has asked the governor for $2 million to create a registry to track such reports. Other agencies have raised alarm bells, too. Last August, an Energy Department panel recommended strengthening drilling regulations in part because of the potential for shale gas development to harm public health. In January, a senior CDC official called for more research to determine the health effects of drilling. In acknowledgement of the risks, the EPA issued new rules this month aimed at reducing airborne emissions from fracking operations. But an EPA spokesperson told OnEarth that the rules apply only to gas wells, so they won't affect operations at North Dakota's oil wells -- even though they produce similar emissions to natural-gas fracking.

On the whole, state and federal agencies have been slow to respond to the growing concerns about public health, says Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, who notes that these agencies haven’t done the research needed to ensure that shale drilling is safe to nearby residents. Goldstein published a paper in January arguing that public health officials are being left out of the debate over how to regulate drilling, despite evidence of an emerging and indeterminate threat. "Can I point to a specific disease that has been caused by the shale drilling? No I cannot," he says. But that’s in part because no state or federal agency has been systematically tracking drilling-related health complaints, so it is impossible to put a number on them. Goldstein, though, says the proliferating reports should be enough to trigger an official review. "There’s no question that there are a lot of people out there that are not healthy."

The Schilkes’s case could represent one small but significant step forward in the effort to get drilling regulators to take the health concerns seriously. Once Jacki believed that drilling was to blame for her health problems in the summer of 2010, she began hounding the U.S. EPA and state agencies -- and even hired an independent scientist to test her air and water. Thanks to her persistence, the Schilkes’s case is now under review by a division of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could prove to be one of the first instances in which federal officials link a specific health complaint to the new drilling boom. As energy companies expand the use of fracking in oil drilling fields from Colorado to Ohio, the Schilkes’s case might prove to be one of the best-documented examples of the impact intensive drilling can have on the health of the people who live nearby.

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