Unknown unknowns: the disturbing case of Vernal, Utah

From time to time we talk about Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of “unknown unknowns,” the things we don’t know that we don’t know. When we look at oil and gas drilling in people’s back yards, which has become common since the hydraulic fracturing boom began a few years ago, we have to recognize that there are unknown consequences — outcomes to health, environment and community that will play out over time, but which can’t be known today.

The unknown unknowns are at the heart of many of our political disputes about fracking. Some of us say we should not rush into fracking in people’s back yards because there are likely to be unacceptable outcomes that we can’t anticipate today. Others say, “You can’t prove that fracking contaminates water or ruins health, therefore we shouldn’t stand in the way of economic progress.

From my point of view, the problem with the second argument is that we’re already starting to see these unknown unknowns come to pass — studies that link fracking with health problems, much higher than anticipated levels of hydrocarbon emissions, unexpected water contamination, and more. Since fracking has been an ascendant technology for only about ten years, it is reasonable to expect that more of these unknown unknowns will begin to emerge over time.

Today’s post is about a deeply disturbing unknown unknown. There has not been time to prove its existence by a peer reviewed scientific study, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It offers us a clear lesson about how linked oil and gas development is to the long-term health and way of life in rural communities.

Vernal, Utah
Vernal, Utah is the county seat and largest city in Uintah County. It is located in the northeastern part of the state about 175 miles east of Salt Lake City and 20 miles west of the Colorado border. In 2012 the population of Vernal was 9,817.

Vernal, Utah.

Vernal, Utah.

Uintah County has been Utah’s main oil producer for more than 70 years. As far back as 1918, National Geographic recognized the area’s potential: “Campers and hunters in building fires against pieces of the rock had been surprised to find that they ignited, that they contain oil.”

As described by accomplished author David Gessner, oil and gas companies have invested heavily in Vernal to make sure the town is loyal to its interests:

There are shiny new schools and municipal buildings and ballparks. The Western Park Convention Center, covering 32 acres, is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the West. Not every town hosts a golf tournament called Petroleum Days or throws a music festival — like last summer’s weekend-long Country Explosion — co-sponsored by a maker of centrifuges and mud/gas separators. Then there’s the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College, a beautiful sandstone building with the streamlined look of a brand-new upscale airport.

Uintah County, Utah Click to view in Google Maps

Uintah County, Utah
Click to view in Google Maps

The town’s natural wealth has produced periods of booms and busts. As Gessner describes,

Since its initial boom, in 1948, Vernal has been riding these waves up and down, the boom of the early 1980s crashing hard and then rising again only to crash in the early 2000s. During these dark times, no matter how hard the town loved oil, oil didn’t love them back. If a lesson was to be learned, it would seem to be one of caution, but as soon as oil returned, the town threw itself back into the industry’s big arms. That was the George W. Bush boom, which included a last-minute gift of almost 3,000 more permits. This turned into the Obama boom, which continues to this moment.

Now there is concern that the current boom may be turning to bust, as oil and gas prices fall.

But along with the bust may come something more deadly and serious — a public health crisis that some locals are just beginning to understand, and that the towns elders and elected officials are doing everything they can to suppress. It is one of the unknown unknowns that comes with oil and gas drilling, and its deadly nature is just beginning to reveal itself.

A public health crisis affecting newborns
Donna Young, a midwife in Uinta County, began to notice something very unusual about a year ago. She delivered a stillborn baby in May, 2013, and when she attended the funeral she saw that there was a surprising number of infant graves.

Curious, she began to investigate. As reported by Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment,

she didn’t get any help from local authorities, but eventually information gleaned from obituaries and mortuaries revealed 12 cases of neonatal mortality (most of them stillborn, or death shortly after birth), in 2013. Looking back to 2010 revealed a modest upward trend, but then a huge spike in 2013. This is sparsely populated rural Utah. Vernal is a town of fewer than 10,000 people. But per capita, this is a neonatal mortality six times the national average. It is actually worse than it appears. National infant mortality rates have been dropping slowly and steadily for almost 50 years, including about a 10 to 15 percent drop in the last decade. Furthermore, most of Utah is about 50 percent Mormon, so the rate of drinking and smoking is less than the national average throughout the state. The minority population in rural Utah, like Vernal, is very low, and the percentage of Mormons is even higher, both of which should lower the infant mortality rates, all other things being equal.

Ruling out such possible factors that might account for a spike in stillborns — an increase in teenage mothers, more drug or alcohol abuse, genetic changes, medical incompetence — Moench identifies the only factor that could be relevant:

Major cities with pollution problems have either high ozone, like Los Angeles, or high particulate pollution, like Salt Lake City, depending on the time of year. But the Uinta Basin has both simultaneously, making it unique and the most polluted part of the state. Studies suggest that the two may act synergistically to impair human health. Add to that high levels of the by-products of every phase of the oil and gas fracking extraction process – diesel emissions and hazardous compounds like benzene, toluene and naphthene, and you have a uniquely toxic air pollution brew in Vernal.

According to Moench, it’s not just still births. A rare birth defect that makes it difficult for babies to breathe has begun to be identified. 30 babies with the defect have now been reported, which, without further investigation, is seven times the normal rate.Uintah County oilfieldsUintah County oilfields

The unknown unknowns are starting to reveal themselves in Uintah County. In addition to public health issues, the area will be among the hardest hit by global warming in the United States, and could be facing disaster. The projected rise in temperature in eastern Utah is nine degrees by the year 2100. This will, in Moench’s words:

…decimate the ecosystems that are necessary to support human life – it means dramatically more drought, shrinking snow pack and water resources, more wildfires and dead forests, unsustainable agriculture, and apocalyptic dust storms – a complete collapse of the human carrying capacity of the Western United States. And it means more dead babies, a lot more.

Lessons for Stillwater and Carbon County
I’m sure I’m going to get emails accusing me of scare mongering, not to mention being in league with the terrorists, but it’s important to note that I’m not saying Red Lodge is the same as Vernal, Utah. It isn’t. Uintah County has been a prime oil producing area for decades, and we have no idea the extent to which cumulative impacts are contributing to the health problems that are becoming evident there.

That said, we shouldn’t close our eyes to the possibility that Uintah County is a canary in the coal mine for the unknown unknowns that might transpire as a result of oil and gas drilling. You can’t just ignore what is happening there.

My concern is twofold:

  • To the extent that the current plans to frack southern Montana come to pass, the oil and gas companies will invest to make our elected officials beholden to them. It’s what they do, and it’s a proven strategy. It’s very hard for local officials to resist the infusion of private monies to create local monuments to their tenure in office.
  • Fracking still has many unknown unknowns. We don’t know the ultimate health impacts, and we don’t yet know the likely environmental impacts. We don’t even know how much oil ECA and the companies that follow are going to find.

But we shouldn’t wait to find out to make clear plans about what we want the future of the Beartooth Front to be. We need to define locally the conditions under which we will allow oil companies to drill — the design of wells, well spacing, the amount of flaring, how close wells can be to residences, how near to water sources, what water testing requirements we need to impose.

These issues are critical to the future of our communities, and we shouldn’t wait until oil companies are dangling money at us to figure them out.

Communities that determine their own futures survive intact. Those that allow oil companies to dictate to them permanently lose control over their way of life.

If you don’t believe me, drive 200 miles south to Pavillion.


About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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12 Responses to Unknown unknowns: the disturbing case of Vernal, Utah

  1. Pingback: We’re fracking in the dark. We need to know what we’ll find out when the light comes on. | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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  6. bryan m says:

    I agree that drilling is a pollution problem but so is “overpopulation”. too many people requires more need for its consequences. SO dead babies that’s that your argument. I’m not trying to disagree in terms of pollution and disastrous consequences but to many Mormons with still birth problems is all I really got out of all this. it has some great “filler” information but your not fighting any “save the world” battles with this.

  7. It was enough for me… I signed a 6 month lease… after that, back to slc

  8. Pingback: New scientific study shows fracking is strongly related to infant mortality | Preserve the Beartooth Front

  9. Pingback: A-Z Blogging “V” | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  10. Not That Desperate says:

    I have a new baby and as a single mother Vernal, UT seemed like a good option to move to because of the INCREDIBLY low rent and home prices. It struck me as odd though that they were so low. When rents in slc are on average 120o for a one bedroom and in Vernal you can get a new, 3 bed 2 bath for $500 a month! Glad to have found the reason why before moving! Thank you so much for this article!

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