Every night, Donna Young goes to bed with her pistol, a .45 Taurus Judge with laser attachment. Last fall, she says, someone stole onto her ranch to poison her livestock, or tried to; happily, her son found the d-CON wrapper and dumped all the feed from the troughs. Strangers phoned the house to wish her dead or run out of town on a rail. Local nurses and doctors went them one better, she says, warning pregnant women that Young’s incompetence had killed babies and would surely kill theirs too, if given the chance.
“Before they started spreading their cheer about me, I usually had 18 to 25 clients a year, and a spotless reputation in the state,” says Young, the primary midwife to service Vernal, Utah, a boom-and-bust town of 10,000 people in the heart of the fracked-gas gold rush of the Uintah Basin. A hundred and fifty miles of sparse blacktop east of Salt Lake City, Vernal has the feel of a slapdash suburb dropped randomly from outer space. Half of it is new and garishly built, the paint barely dry after a decade-long run of fresh-drilled wells and full employment. “Now, I’m down to four or five ladies, and don’t know how I’ll be able to feed my animals if things don’t turn around quick.”
Young, a fiftysomething, heart-faced woman with a story-time lilt of a voice, cuts a curious figure for a pariah. She’s the mother of six, a grandmother of 14 and an object of reverence among the women she’s helped, many of whom she’s guided through three and four home births with blissfully short labors and zero pain meds. And the sin for which she’s been punished with death threats and attacks on her reputation? Two years ago, she stumbled onto the truth that an alarming number of babies were dying in Vernal — at least 10 in 2013 alone, what seemed to her a shockingly high infant mortality rate for such a small town. That summer, she raised her hand and put the obvious question to Joe Shaffer, director of the TriCounty Health Department: Why are so many of our babies dying?
In most places, detecting a grave risk to children would inspire people to name a street for you. But in Vernal, a town literally built by oil, raising questions about the safety of fracking will brand you a traitor and a target. “Me and my kids are still cautious: If someone kicked in my front door tonight, it’d take an hour for the sheriff to get here,” says Young, whose house on 60 acres is well out of town and a quarter-mile clear of her closest neighbor. “The first person they’d meet is me on the staircase, pointing that .45 dead at ’em. And I know how to use these things — I can nail a coyote in the pasture from 100 yards.”
Prodded by Young and the concerns she pushed along, which made their way through channels to state officials, TriCounty Health announced a study in 2014 to assess Young’s concerns over the infant mortality rate. But Young, backed up by experts in Salt Lake City, believed the study was designed to fail. She says that any serious inquiry would have started with Suspect One: the extraordinary levels of wintertime pollution plaguing the Basin since the vast new undertaking to frack the region’s shale filled the air with toxins. The county merely counted up infant deaths and brushed aside the facts about Vernal air pollution: ozone readings that rivaled the worst days of summer in New York, Los Angeles or Salt Lake City; particulate matter as bad as Mexico City; and ground air fraught with carcinogenic gases like benzene, rogue emissions from oil and gas drilling. Indeed, pollution was so bad in this rural bowl that it broke new ground in climate science. For decades, experts believed that life-threatening smog occurred only in or near big cities. But the Basin, which is bound on all four sides by mountains, is a perfectly formed bowl for winter inversions, in which 20-below weather clamps down on the valley and is sealed there by warmer air above it. During those spells, when the haze is visible and the air in one’s lungs is a cold chisel, the sun’s rays reflect off the snow on the ground and cook the volatile gases into ozone. The worst such period in the Basin’s recent history was the winter of 2012-13, when nearly all the Uintah mothers whose babies died were pregnant.