And then, we saw it…


Stillwater, OK. It was July. We were driving in unfamiliar territory in central Oklahoma, navigating through dusty, hot ranching communities and along miles of barbwire fence that separated us from distant livestock. The GPS spouted off a series of commands that led to narrower roads with horses, cattle, and homes closer to the fence lines. A mile or so beyond where the pavement ended, we saw it.


Not the home where we had been invited to a luncheon with Payne County landowners, but a “fracking” well, flaring like a giant propane torch fifty feet from the fence line. The horses calmly watched us taking pictures and shouting to each other over the roar of the flare.

Directly across the gravel road, we noticed stacks of Polypipe and freshly-dug trenches where underground piping had recently been laid. Unwanted publicity over “frackquakes”––earthquakes linked with the fracking industry’s practice of re-injecting wastewater in underground disposal wells––drove the industry to “voluntarily reduce” the number of injections. Yet drilling continued. Where could the wastewater be going?


We were running late for our meeting. Two blocks later––and still within sight, sound, and smell of the flare––we arrived at our destination. Ten landowners were having an animated discussion. We joined the crowd that sprawled across the living room and kitchen and listened. In our absence, the landowners––weather-beaten ranchers, fresh-faced young mothers, and retirees––had discovered that they were all sick and their symptoms were similar. Symptoms like terrible migraine-like headaches, burning eyes, runny noses, dry cough, scratchy or sore throat, trouble breathing, nose bleeds, vertigo or dizzy spells, and more.


Then someone mentioned that their symptoms had cleared up when they had left home for an extended stay to visit family. This set off another round of discussion. Everyone shared a similar experience, including the onset of symptoms again when the landowners had returned home.


The circle grew quiet as they all suddenly came to the same suspicion––were their health problems connected with their proximity to fracking activities? Everyone looked at me.


As an ALERT trainer, I had been invited to share the current medical and scientific information on health harms linked to fracking activities. The science and evidence, now a significant body of information, validated the landowners’ suspicions. They had, in fact, identified some of the characteristic symptoms of exposure to petrochemicals, which include respiratory problems, central nervous system problems like headaches and dizziness, and bleeding problems. These symptoms lessen or clear up when the level of contamination drops––or when the person gets out of harm’s way by leaving the contaminated area. The symptoms are your body’s way of warning that you are in danger. Left untreated by health care professionals who have been trained to diagnose and treat chemical illnesses, these relatively common symptoms can erupt into life-threatening cancers and debilitating autoimmune, cardiovascular, respiratory, and other illnesses.


The barrage of chemicals and oil released during fracking activities contaminates the air we all breathe and the water we all drink. “All” means people, livestock, pets, wildlife, and more.


Domestic fracking activities expanded rapidly after the “Halliburton Loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted this industry from eight of the major federal laws passed in the 1970s. These federal laws were designed to protect air quality, drinking water, and public health. The consequences of gutting them have been, predictably, toxic air, contaminated water, sick people, and dying animals.


Such problems plague the fracking industry, which has managed to keep them off the public’s radar screen for years through strong-arm and other tactics. That Polypipe we saw in Payne County––residents suspect the industry is using Polypipe for temporary storage of millions of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater, despite the fact that most of the chemicals will pass right through the pipe into ground and water. Other tactics have included gag orders tied to large cash settlements and property buyouts that keep homeowners quiet after their water is spoiled from fracking activities.


Most states have no way to track water contamination complaints that are privately settled, resulting in massive under-reporting of health harms. Lacking evidence of harm––and political will––regulators have been unable to rein in this runaway industry.


Meanwhile, the harm continues as methane escapes from deep underground through flawed or damaged well bores and abandoned wells; it bubbles up in streams and wells; and it flows in water pipes and infiltrates basements. Tap water ignites and homes explode. Briny fluids and rock waste byproducts from oil and gas extraction contaminate shallow water sources from spills and breached pits, and construction activities clog collection boxes for spring water with sediment.


It brings home again, why I do what I do and why ALERT does what it does. We have to.



ALERT is committed to making healthy people and healthy communities part of our energy future. Please help us make ALERT happen!


Riki Ott, PhD, directs ALERT, a project of Earth Island Institute. Since 2004, she has used multi-state tours to increase public awareness of the environmental, health, and social costs of oil and gas activities and to identify and implement actions that will reduce risks or prevent harm.