In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking
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Jacki Schilke grew up across the border in Montana and traveled the country as a younger woman, operating two small drilling rigs with her previous husband. After getting a divorce, she finally settled in 1994 in Williston, where she met Steve. They followed their dream and bought cattle in 2000, pasturing them on rented land until they bought their farmstead six years ago. But after only a few years, everything started falling apart.
The state health department began looking into her health complaints in late 2010. Inspectors have visited the area on days when Jacki reported foul-smelling air, but they have never found any contaminants above what the department considers "normal background" levels, according to Jim Semerad, an enforcement officer with the division of air quality.
But Alisa Rich has. An environmental scientist with a master’s degree in public health, Rich runs her own consulting firm in Texas, where she has been at the center of the debate over gas drilling and its health effects. When the state health department couldn’t find the source of the Schilkes’s problems, officials recommended that the couple hire an independent company to test the air in their home. After several firms said they couldn’t help, Jacki found Rich’s name in late fall 2010 on the website of Earthworks, an environmental group.
Jacki says she has spent about $12,000 on the tests, plus another $30,000 or so on medical bills, travel to doctors, and further testing she has done herself. Although Rich’s water tests have shown high levels of some minerals, it’s the air that has alarmed her the most. On February 27, 2011, Rich took samples from six sites around the Schilke property and measured levels of several chemicals against short-term health standards established by Texas regulators (North Dakota has not set health-based standards for these chemicals). On Jacki’s driveway, levels of benzene, a carcinogen, exceeded the standard by two-thirds. If the levels that Rich found were indicative of a normal day and were present for many months at a time, Rich says they would be far higher than what is safe for chronic exposure. "They’re just off the charts," she says. In addition to benzene, she found several other compounds, including toluene and xylenes, which affect the nervous system and may cause kidney and liver damage.
Although Rich’s tests capture just one day, she says her findings warrant further study. EPA officials are waiting for the results of their consultation with the CDC before they decide whether to do more.
Rich says state inspectors never would have detected such detailed information because the device they used to take air quality samples is designed for spot testing near equipment, not for monitoring ambient air quality. The officials counter that their equipment has the benefit of giving immediate results. They did not check for individual compounds, such as benzene, at the Schilkes’s home.
Semerad is reluctant to comment on Rich’s data because his department wasn’t involved in the sampling or analysis, but he maintains that he has detected nothing in the air near the Schilkes’s property that isn’t common. He doubts whether any conclusions can be drawn from Rich’s testing, especially the high benzene concentration on the driveway. Was the benzene carried there from the oil wells by the wind or terrain, he wonders? Or could the chemicals have come from the tailpipe of Jacki’s pickup?
As the number of tests mounted, hard answers to what was causing the Schilkes’s symptoms remained elusive. In the fall of 2010, a Williston doctor found abnormal levels of arsenic in Jacki’s urine and germanium in both of their blood samples, but he said those couldn’t explain their symptoms. (AlthoughOnEarth viewed some of the Schilkes’s medical records, their doctors would not talk to a reporter unless the Schilkes signed a privacy release. Their lawyer advised the couple against it.) The following year, the white substance that had caked along the creek on their property started showing up elsewhere. A photo shows their basement floor covered in what looks like rock salt, piling up in some spots as if dumped from a bag. Jacki still doesn’t know what it is or where it came from.
The EPA denied requests for an interview for this story, but internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that an official in the agency’s Denver office took up Jacki’s case last summer, a year after she started complaining to the federal government. The official began collecting all the monitoring results conducted by state authorities, as well as those from Rich and Oasis, which had conducted its own sampling. On September 24, the EPA official forwarded some of the material to a colleague in her office’s laboratory, calling the data "intriguing." The official had visited the Schilkes and noted that Jacki was covered "head to toe in a rash that doctors can’t figure out." Eventually, the EPA forwarded the material it had gathered to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for review.
The EPA generally calls on ATSDR to determine whether any chemicals found in the environment may present a health hazard. Sometimes the agency will also say where the chemicals seem to have originated. ATSDR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but history shows that final determinations in a case like Jacki’s are hard to come by. The agency conducted two consultations, in 2008 and 2010, for Garfield County, Colorado -- an area of intensive drilling and one of the most closely studied gas field communities. Working with state health officials, the CDC reviewed years of data but was unable to determine whether or not the toxic chemicals detected in the mountain air were a threat to the community’s health. It recommended further testing. The second consultation noted that, because of a lack of existing research, officials could not quantify health risks for 65 out of the 86 contaminants detected. "The current state of the science is unable to assess exposures to complex mixtures of air toxics," the report said, adding that there was particular uncertainty about long-term exposure to low levels of those compounds.
Although federal officials continue to study the Schilkes’s case, cautioning that it’s too soon to draw conclusions, Jacki is now convinced that drilling is to blame for her health problems. Rich says that what she has found, from the Schilkes’s symptoms to the chemicals in their air, is consistent with what she calls "shale gas syndrome," her name for the collection of health reports that have followed drilling across the country but which remain untracked in any official capacity.
North Dakota officials counter that if drilling were to blame, they would expect more people turning up sick. Three other state residents have registered drilling-related complaints with the health department’s division of air quality since the beginning of 2010, including Brenda Jorgenson, who lives about 50 miles west of Schilke. When the drillers were mixing chemicals for a frack job at a well next to her home last spring, the fumes made Jorgenson’s eyes and throat burn. Odors from the well’s waste pit gave her headaches until the pit was covered and buried on her land. But Jorgenson says the health department did nothing to help her. Semerad says the oil company violated no rules, so there was nothing for his department to do.
Jacki is resigned to the fact that she may never get help from state or federal authorities. "I was under the illusion that if there was ever a problem like this, all you had to do was pick up the phone and call the EPA, and there were laws in place that would protect us," Jacki says. The Schilkes have decided to leave North Dakota no matter what the federal government’s review says. They’re looking for land in Montana, away from the drilling, and hope to move by the end of summer. "That’s all I want," Jacki says. "I want to get the hell out of North Dakota, to somewhere I can breathe clean air, and never come back again."