The bloody business of fracking in Arkansas.
Man in Hazmat suit near oil well in Quitman, Arkansas. All photos by Alex Leme.
A year after the gas companies moved in, Dirk DeTurck began taking notes.
May 2009: Bulldozers started out back building roads and burning trees. House had smoke in it. Like camping indoors. Bought an air purifier.
May 17, 2009: Started drilling behind house. Noise 24/7. Ears ringing. Still ring. Loud in the house. Roads all torn up. [The gas companies] spread white gooey stuff for dust control…. Strong diesel smell in the house. Afraid to light a match.
I visited Dirk at his home on the outskirts of Greenbrier, Arkansas, just as a spring hot spell swept through the area. It had rained days before and the trees I passed on the drive over shimmered in the wet heat. Soon, though, the forests gave way to clear-cut areas honeycombed with concrete drill pads. Brown and green tanks rose from the pads, pipes snaked out from pumps.
Uncut forests and vacant hills resurged shortly before I arrived at the DeTurcks’ stone house, but the wooded acres behind their property struggled to swallow several more pads. The sight was far from threatening to an eye already conditioned to industrial intrusions, but this is a relatively new eyesore in Greenbrier, and Dirk knew better.
He answered the door as if we were in the middle of a conversation started elsewhere. “Hydrogen sulfide hangs in the air like a layer of fog,” he said. “It comes off the tanks. Smells like rotten eggs and decaying compost with a little chemical thrown in.”
Dirk is a retired mechanic and maintenance man. He studied mechanical engineering in school. He served as a Machinist’s Mate in the Navy. You name it, he can fix it. He knows how things work.
Dirk DeTurck near his home in Greenbrier, Arkansas.
He and his wife, Eva, moved to Greenbrier from Elmira, New York, in 2004. Eva had grown up in Mountain View, Arkansas, and Dirk came to love the area after they vacationed there. The land was so primitive, and you couldn’t beat the weather.
They chose a home in Greenbrier because it was small and rural, and, unlike Mountain View, it had a hospital. Their son had broken forty-three bones after a bad fall from a roof, and subsequent surgery on his aorta left him paralyzed.
The house they found had been built on farmland divided into lots. Dirk and Eva grew a vegetable garden in the backyard. Dirk hunted deer and dried the meat. They were frugal with water and recycled as much as they could. “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Dirk told me.
In 2004, Dirk had no idea what fracking was. He would learn the hard way.
Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking is the process by which gas companies access underground deposits of natural gas, called shales. Millions of gallons of “fracking fluid”—that’s water and sand mixed with hundreds of chemicals—are pumped deep into the earth’s crust, breaking up rock and freeing natural gas reserves.
Natural gas is being marketed as a clean, green alternative to foreign-oil dependency; this year, the International Energy Agency found that carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. fell by four hundred and fifty tons, the result of an increase in the use of natural gas instead of coal. But since the inception of widespread fracking in 1997, horror stories have slowly entered the national conscience: illnesses coinciding with contaminated wells, citizens who can light their tap water on fire, pet and livestock deaths, exploding houses.
“The industry says [frack fluid] goes down and comes back up through pipes and is fine,” says Daniel Botkin, ecologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “In fact, stuff comes out and contaminates surface water and soil. If they wanted to do this in any reliable way, they would pick a few places and frack as an experiment and study the outcomes. That’s not what’s happening. There’s so much money to be made, fracking is done on a very large scale. It could affect a lot of people.”
Much of Northern Arkansas, including Greenbrier, sits atop the Fayetteville Shale, one of the largest natural-gas reserves in the country. Oil and gas companies began developing the area in late 2004; today, approximately four thousand gas wells plumb the depths of the shale. The Sam M. Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas estimates that the first five years of Fayetteville Shale exploration generated eleven thousand jobs and eighteen billion dollars in revenue.
Is fracking a boon to flailing economies or a disaster in progress?
September 2009: Rash started on waist, armpits. Spread to knees. I don’t know what started it. Face and neck tingle like something crawling on it. Tongue bleeding for no reason.
When construction equipment started rumbling by in 2008, Dirk and Eva thought someone was damming Mill Creek for water to supply a nearby town. Then they noticed the trucks inching down Blackjack Road—ten to twelve eighteen-wheelers a day.
“Are they bulldozing to build houses?” Dirk asked a neighbor.
“No,” the man said. “They’re drilling gas wells.”
At night, the gas pads blazed as if someone had switched on stadium lights. The drilling sent vibrations through the house and the noise filled every room, making it impossible to talk. Black smoke ringed the tops of trees. The air carried sharp and stinging odors. Magnolias and blue spruce began dying; deer, turkeys, raccoons, and opossums disappeared. Dirk found tumorous squirrels whose tails had fallen off.
For the next year, Dirk and Eva kept their doors and windows closed. They no longer sat on their deck. Their four grandchildren were not allowed to play outside the house for more than two hours; if they were out longer, they got headaches. Despite the precaution, one of the boys developed a rash. The doctor chalked it up to an allergy, prescribed a steroid cream.
Eva, meanwhile, was unable to sleep. She felt jittery, jacked up. Then Dirk noticed his own rashes. His nose began bleeding. His tongue began bleeding.
January 1, 2011: Tap water turned light brown. Cleared up same day. Started getting pink rings in toilet bowls. What is in water?
Whatever was in the water, the DeTurcks decided to quit drinking it. Eva also started taking motion-sickness pills to cope with the earthquakes, which had been rattling the area since 2009. In December of 2010, civic leaders scheduled a community meeting in which geologists explained how earthquakes worked, but failed to account for the severe uptick in tremors. The large congregation of concerned citizens turned sour, and the meeting was broken up by sheriffs.
At the request of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, Haydar Al-Shukri, chair of Applied Sciences at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, had been monitoring an injection well in the Greenbrier area. Re-injection into the ground is one of several methods by which gas companies dispose of the fluid that makes its way back up to the surface after fracking. Al-Shukri’s equipment was able to detect seismic activity within a twenty-five-mile radius that included three other injection wells. He found a strong correlation between the earthquakes and two of the wells.
“They were very close to the fault,” Al-Shukri said. “Injection wells close to the fault can cause the fault to slip.” In February 2011, the Greenbrier area experienced a quake that registered 4.7 on the Richter Scale—the state’s worst in thirty-five years. A month later, when a moratorium was placed on the injection wells, the earthquakes all but stopped. In the six months prior to the shutdown, over twelve hundred earthquakes had been recorded.
About the same time the earthquakes began to subside, Dirk noticed numbers on the tanks of the trucks he saw coming and going from drill sites. He knew from work experience that the numbers were assigned by the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and are meant to alert emergency crews to adopt hazard-specific procedures in case of a wreck or spill. Dirk recorded all of the numbers he saw, along with notes like “Saw driving through a school zone.”
Under an exemption pushed through Congress in 2005, the contents of frack fluid are considered proprietary; in other words, oil and gas companies are under no obligation to disclose which chemicals they use, so they don’t. Independent efforts like Dirk’s, however, suggest frack fluid often contains antifreeze, detergents, known human carcinogens, and neurotoxins.
Memphis lawyer Tim Holton wants courts to require independent monitoring of water supplies and public health in areas near fracking activities. He is representing a number of Arkansas families who claim fracking has damaged their health.
Holton tells me of a family he represents—two children who live with their grandparents. In August 2011, three natural gas wells were placed within two hundred and fifty feet of their home. Their suit alleges that, during the fracking process, large amounts of xylene, methylene chloride, and benzene were released and contaminated the air inside the home to toxic levels. Several procedures related to fracking can cause volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, to become airborne.
Long-term xylene exposure can cause harmful effects to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Prolonged exposure to methylene chloride can cause neurological damage. Benzene is a carcinogen.
“I was amazed by the extent of emissions wafting over the home. It looked like a refinery in Texas but it was one frack site,” Holton says. “The health effects of this are in their infancy in Arkansas. The effect won’t be seen for several years. You sit around breathing it in and you won’t know right away what it’s doing. You’ll have no idea. Then you turn forty-five and you can’t draw a breath.”
The sign right outside of Guy, Arkansas, reads: Welcome to Guy. A small town with a big heart. It’s about a ten-minute drive from Dirk’s house. I spoke to the mayor there, Johnny Wilson, who thinks the dangers of fracking are exaggerated.
Mayor Wilson tells me the gas companies employ lots of people in Guy. Folks have been moving in from Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas. Going on six years now. The population shot up to 708 when a few years back it was just 203. A fracking company employs Wilson’s own son.
“They’re just jealous,” he says of citizens who criticize the gas companies. He chuckles. “They don’t have mineral rights to sell. The naysayers don’t get checks and that makes them mad.”
Jackie McPherson, mayor of Heber Springs, Arkansas, is equally enthusiastic about the industry. He tells me natural gas saved his town from the recession. Sure, it staggered during the hardest times, but people were still going to jobs or getting royalty checks. They bought homes and new cars. Some had never bought new cars before. Since the drilling started, people have moved in from other states. Hotels filled with oil prospectors. Despite the recession, the tax base of Heber Springs is growing.
Mayor McPherson has lived in Heber Springs since 1964. He’s president of the local water-skiing club. He owns two boats. No one, he says, wants to protect the environment like he does.
I ask Mayor Wilson for the names of people he knows who got work through the gas companies. I call each one, but they all refuse to talk to me when I identify myself as a reporter, save for one man. The man says he would still be “kicking the can down the road” if the gas companies hadn’t given him a job. Before he speaks further or lets me use his name, he says he needs to ask his work supervisor for permission. He says he’ll get right back to me. He never does.
Tracy Wilson and her husband, Keith, an Iraq War veteran, live in a white house with a broad front porch. Two llamas stand fenced in beyond their gravel drive. Keith is hosing out animal pens as I drive up, his shorts and shirt soaked. Tracy comes out of the house on crutches, shrugging blond hair off her shoulders.
Keith is a police officer. Tracy takes in exotic species people once owned as pets but can no longer manage. Llamas, bobcats, lynx, and deer are among the wildlife in their care. They speak to me on the condition that I not mention where they live, for fear someone might try to steal their animals.
The Wilsons grew up near Little Rock, but decided to leave the city for the country when Tracy started her wildlife sanctuary. The property they chose offered plenty of space; none of their neighbors lived on fewer than ten acres. Many of the families around them raised beef and dairy cows. After she and Keith moved in, Tracy planted close to a thousand pines to create even more privacy.
In 2005, the Wilsons heard rumors that oil companies would soon be drilling for gas in the Fayetteville Shale. They began receiving letters from those same companies, offering to buy their mineral rights for one hundred dollars an acre. The amount increased with each letter. Two hundred, two hundred and fifty. Tracy tossed them. Neither she nor Keith were interested. Tracy bought more pines, thinking the trees would create a buffer between their home and the wells.
The pines, however, were not enough to prevent landmen from stopping by the house. Petroleum landmen perform various services for oil and gas exploration companies. According to the American Association of Professional Landmen’s website, these services include negotiating for the acquisition and divestiture of mineral rights.
The men who came by the Wilsons’ house knew their business. Hair slicked back, fresh-pressed shirts. They told Tracy her mineral rights could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They told her she would pay cash for new Cadillacs. She asked the landmen to show her something in writing, but they never did. Instead, they threatened to have the property condemned if Tracy and Keith didn’t sell their mineral rights voluntarily.
Tracy thought he was bluffing and spoke to an attorney. The attorney told her that a gas company could appeal to the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission. State laws can force a homeowner to turn over his or her mineral rights if everyone else in the area has already signed a lease. “Forced pooling” compels holdout landowners to join gas-leasing agreements with their neighbors. In Arkansas, drillers can extract minerals from an entire pool if leases have been negotiated for a certain percentage of the land.
The attorney advised the Wilsons to work out a lease wherein they sold their mineral rights for four hundred and fifty dollars an acre. They kept their property rights, however, so the gas companies could not drill within five hundred feet of their property. It was flimsy protection; if the gas company changed its mind and decided to drill on their property, it could have just taken them to court. The Wilsons didn’t have the money to fight them.
In 2008, helicopters dropped fiber-optic cables and depth charges for seismic tests, Tracy recalls. A gas well was constructed within eighteen hundred feet of the Wilsons’ home. When the drilling started, the Wilsons’ house shook as if a train were running through it. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
In 2009, Tracy started getting dizzy. Her head ached. She broke out in rashes. She smelled something like plastic burning. At night, she would shine a flashlight and see particulates in the air. I’m breathing that stuff in, she thought.
That was the year Keith returned from his second deployment in Iraq. When he saw the gas wells near his house, he was reminded of the oil plants in Iraq, the noise of drill rigs. Soldiers, he told Tracy, were coming back with respiratory problems because of smoke coming off the oil wells and the trash pits on U.S. bases, where everything from body parts to plastics were burned. He smelled that same stench again, only this time in his backyard.
Keith didn’t want to think about Iraq, but the tankers and water trucks reminded him of the vehicles he’d seen in Iraq’s oil fields. In Iraq, if an eighteen-wheeler pulled up on him, it either backed off or got blown away.
Tracy had headaches for the entire month of August 2010. Skin lesions and blisters broke out on her back. Her lymph nodes swelled to golf-ball size, she says. Her doctor gave her antibiotics and topical creams, but nothing worked. Keith developed nosebleeds; he’d never had them before. His nose would start running and there would be blood.
A month before the big quake, Tracy blacked out and fell down the stairs. She tore a tendon and chipped a bone in her left ankle. The bone refused to heal. Her doctor didn’t know why.
I break off our conversation for a moment and call Adam Law, a clinical assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and practicing endocrinologist in New York. He is calling on gas companies to stop the use of hydraulic fracturing until its effects on people and the environment have been thoroughly studied. I tell him about the symptoms the Wilsons and DeTurcks experienced.
“As doctors, we’re not really trained in environmental health,” he says. “There’s very little training with occupational exposure. When you see stuff like this for the first time, it’s a little uncomfortable. You don’t know who to send the patient to or what to prescribe. It’s difficult to know what they’ve been exposed to. You can tell people how to reduce exposure—don’t bathe or drink the water—but it’s hard to say don’t breathe.”
Tracy and Keith had planned to retire on their land and never move again. In 2009, they spent seventy thousand dollars on improvements to the fourteen-year-old house; they added a sunroom, replaced the roof, put in new central air, painted inside and out. They had the house appraised when they finished in 2011. It was valued at seventy thousand dollars fewer than it had been in 2009. Back then, there wasn’t as much traffic. There weren’t gas wells nearby.
When the big quake struck, the Wilsons’ roosters, dogs, and donkeys began barking and crowing and braying all at once. The ground shifted. A kind of growl passed through the house. The noise was like thunder, Keith says, but it lasted longer. They bought earthquake insurance for eight hundred dollars a year. It costs more than any royalty payment they have received from the gas company.
From the Wilsons’ house, I drive west to Hartford, Arkansas, to meet Jack and Mary White. They live on a stretch of road flanked by tall grass and scrub brush. Cows poke their heads through warped fences and the cloudless sky wavers from an oppressive heat.
Jack is eighty-two years old. Mary uses a cane to help her walk. Jack helps her, crouching forward a little bit, a hand on her elbow. After lunch, Jack drives me to a graveyard called Sugar Loaf Cemetery. A creek runs not far from it. Water brought people here to Hartford, Jack says. Since the 1800s, the people have depended on water for their farms, crops, and cattle.
In 2005, when a landman knocked on Jack’s door, he knew what was coming. Jack had been an oilman himself. After he was honorably discharged from the Air Force during the Korean War, his older brother got him a job working the oil fields in West Texas. He started as a roughneck, then became an oil-well servicer, a driller, and, later, a superintendent. He met Mary in Kermit, Texas, right after she finished high school. A mutual friend said, “Oh, there’s Mary,” and introduced them. Jack doesn’t know how these things work out, but they do.
Jack worked oil in Egypt and Iran in the early ’60s. He and Mary returned to the states in 1966 so their son could attend high school here. When they moved to Hartford, they planned to retire and produce organic food for their livelihood and sustenance. Jack wanted to put in hoop houses beside their house. In a hoop house, vegetables don’t know it’s winter, he says. You don’t have insect problems. The vegetables taste sweeter, crisper. Hoop houses need a lot of water, so Jack drilled a well.
“I’m a farm boy at heart,” he tells me. “Some of my people have lived in Arkansas and Oklahoma forever. There’s no such thing as worn-out soil. There is neglect and abuse.”
Jack and Mary White in their garden near Hartford, Arkansas.
In 2006, the gas company drilled a well to extract water for fracking, Jack says. Their well was deeper than his and drew his water away. His water pump came up dry. Nowadays it occasionally kicks in, but doesn’t pull enough water for hoop houses. “I have to pick and choose what lives and what dies,” he says.
“When they drill a gas well,” Jack continues, “they blow all the liquid and dust out of the hole. Sounds like a scream rushing out of the ground.” The fracking noise started as a roar before it rose to the pitch of a siren. Days, weeks. Jack quit counting after a while. Twelve diesel compressors added to the racket. Jack and Mary got desperate for sleep and rented motel rooms. They came back to the house as much as they could, so that it wouldn’t appear abandoned, but people knew they were gone. Someone raided their shed and stole Jack’s tools.
One day, when the gas company was blowing out a well, Jack was on a neighbor’s property helping him clear brush. When he got back to his house, he found Mary lying prostrate on the floor. According to Jack, she’d inhaled too much methane—a doctor told him ten minutes later might have been too late.
Jack says Mary has never been the same. He says oilmen used to have more respect, but he understands there’s a lot of money to be made. He’s angry at the state of Arkansas for failing to regulate, failing to protect. He wonders how many more of his neighbors will clear out before it’s over. He’s not leaving, he says, not at his age. After travelling to over sixty foreign countries, he still thinks Hartford is the best place on Earth.
Jack pauses for a moment. He squints through his glasses, runs a hand over a yarrow plant. “Ancient Greek warriors used it when they were hurt,” he says. “Rub it on and it will keep fleas and chiggers off. Make tea out of it, too.”
In the distance, the gas company’s water well sounds like two buckets swinging against each other. Jack listens, releases the yarrow.
“We’re supposed to have record heat this summer,” he says. “Am I going to have any water at all?”
May 2012: Last two days, ears popping. Metal taste in mouth.
These days, Dirk and Eva DeTurck sit in their living room and peer out closed windows at their vacant wood deck. They’ve noticed birds and squirrels returning, but still don’t see any turkeys and not many deer. Their health improved somewhat after they installed an air purifier designed to remove VOCs, but Eva still developed little bumps on her chin. When the wind blows away from the house, Dirk notices his rashes begin to clear.
He and Eva recently put the house up for sale. An Arizona couple visited and offered to buy it. They had two boys, ten and twelve. “Do you know about the gas drilling here?” Dirk asked them. They said no. Dirk refused to sell. How would he sleep at night believing that those two boys were being poisoned?
Tracy Wilson still has trouble with her ankle. As of June 2012, she’s been reliant on crutches for eighteen months. She says the gas companies come and go without contacting residents. She wakes up and oopsy, there’s a new crane or rig.
One night in May, Tracy woke up feeling something wet on her back. Another open abscess. Clear fluid draining from it. Some of her cats have half-dollar-sized blisters that look like burns. “We got ourselves chemical hazard suits and emergency kits, complete with gas masks, to have on hand in case of a chemical spill or worse,” she writes in an e-mail. “Who lives with emergency chemical hazard kits hanging on their coat rack in their home?”
Keith dreams of Iraq. In one dream, he walks across a battlefield picking up weapons amid the eerie orange glow of burning wells. For a long time, he didn’t understand why he dreamed that dream night after night. Then he understood.
In Iraq, Keith passed an oil well on his left every time he went on patrol. When he returned to base, he would pass a well on his right. Now, when he leaves the house for work, he sees a gas well to his left. Returning home, he sees a well on his right.
Every day he sees Iraq.
When I leave the Wilsons’ house, I make a wrong turn and get lost on a gravel road. I stop at a convenience store and ask for directions to Highway 65.
The man behind the counter tells me to go west. He says I’ll see a lot of tanker trucks that haul water and chemicals to gas pads. Then a lot of white pickups, some with gas company names on the side, but not all. And then lots of dump trucks, the ones that run dirt and gravel to the pads.
Once you’re on 65, he tells me, it’ll take a while to get past the drilling. After that, the drive up is beautiful, especially with the trees this time of year. You won’t see quite as many gas pads with the trees all leafed-out. You won’t know they’re there.
Support for this article was provided by the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.