In Utah Boom Town, a Spike in Infant Deaths Raises Questions

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Startled by a row of graves for babies, a midwife (Donna Young, left) raises the alarm in a small Utah drilling town Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune

In Donna Young’s 19 years as a midwife, she’s made house calls to hundreds of mothers in Utah’s Uintah Basin, and never delivered a stillbirth—until last May. She was startled. “Everything seemed to be normal, everything seemed to be good. [But] when the baby was born, she never even tried to take her first breath. It wasn’t a struggle or anything, it just wasn’t there.”

When Young attended the child’s memorial at a cemetery in the town of Vernal a few days later, a woman pointed out a few other fresh graves. The headstones were engraved with baby feet, or just one date—markers for infants who either were stillbirths or were born and died the same day.

“After the services, I came home and got to wondering exactly how many more there were, so I started looking back through the public obituaries,” Young says.

Vernal’s population is under 10,000. Young didn’t have access to official death records, so she came up with her own numbers by looking through obituaries at the three funeral homes in the area. By her count, the infant whose burial she attended in May was the seventh in Vernal to die within a day of being born since the beginning of 2013. Another six infants would die before the year’s end.

That was a major uptick from previous years. According to Young’s findings, the town put in 191 graves in 2010, of which two were for infants. A year later, three infants died, and in 2012, four. The following year, 13 infants died shortly after birth. Total burials in Vernal numbered 176 in 2013, so roughly one in every 15 new graves was for an infant. Vernal’s rate of neonatal mortality appears to have climbed from about average in 2010 (relative to national figures) to six times the normal rate three years later, Young’s calculations show.

Infant death can have any number of causes, and Young doesn’t know the medical history of any of the infants included in her tally. But as reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, she and several advocacy groups have raised questions about the Uintah Basin’s high air pollution, which has been blamed on the oil and gas industry. Encompassing Vernal and three counties, the basin is home to around 30,000 people and some 11,200 oil and gas wells. Another 25,000 new wells are under proposal, according to a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder. The basin is in the midst of possibly the largest oil find in the world: A 2012 federal report estimated that land in the Green River Formation, which extends through the Uintah Basin and into Colorado, might hold up to 3 trillion barrels of oil—more recoverable oil than has been used so far in human history.

“I hate to blame the oil industry, because our livelihoods depend on it. If the [drilling] industry is strong, then the community is strong,” Young says. “But I want solutions. I never want to be in that spot again. I don’t ever want to lose another child.”

The oil and gas industry acknowledges that ozone pollution is an issue in the basin, but dismisses “speculation” about any supposed connection to infant deaths. “We’ve seen the same kind of thing before, where anecdotal evidence is blamed on the oil and natural gas industry. Those accusations before there’s any real evidence are highly suspect,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group, tells Newsweek.

“Ozone has certain health impacts. That’s why EPA has a health standard for ozone, and Western Energy Alliance helped fund [a government-led] study,” she says. “Being that the oil and gas industry is just about the only industry in the basin, it is well known that it is the source of ozone precursors. Ozone precursors do not necessarily create ozone. You need the right weather conditions. We did have high ozone readings in 2013 and 2014, and Western Energy is working with regulators to address that.”

Oil and gas are central to life in the region. A map of the Uintah Basin is thickly cluttered with colorful dots marking the locations of oil and gas wells. “From a plane it looks like the Earth has smallpox,” says Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an advocacy group that is urging the state to more aggressively assess the situation with the infant deaths. The area is almost completely surrounded by mountains. In the winter, it is prone to weather events called “inversions,” where warmer air floats above cooler air, forming a “cap” that keeps the air stagnant and prevents pollution from exiting the area.

Moench’s group has joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what it alleges is failure to declare the Uintah Basin out of compliance with federal air-quality standards. Litigation is pending, and the EPA declines to comment on the lawsuit. “I will note that the Uintah Basin is among many areas in the country where EPA is actively evaluating and working on ozone issues,” says Richard Mylott, a public affairs spokesman for EPA Region 8.

Uintah Basin exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standards level for ozone pollutants for 39 days last winter, according to the University of Colorado study, which puts Uintah Basin’s ozone pollution above the Los Angeles Basin’s average summertime levels. L.A. is currently ranked the most ozone-polluted city in the U.S. by the American Lung Association. Several studies have linked L.A.’s air pollution to an increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as early birth and low birth weight. But linking air pollution to infant deaths within a population as small as Vernal’s is extremely difficult. Some say the state is not trying hard enough.

“We know that pregnant women who breathe more air pollution have much higher rates of virtually every adverse pregnancy outcome that exists,” says Moench. “And we know that this particular town is the center of an oil and gas boom that’s been going on for the past five or six years and has uniquely high particulate matter and high ozone. So seeing this spike in perinatal mortality is not surprising.

“We can’t say at this point, and we probably can’t say ever, that each one of these deaths is due to air pollution,” he continues. “Much like we can’t say that someone’s lung cancer is definitely due to their smoking. But if you put the components of this equation in the context of everything else we know, it would say something.”

But when is an anomaly a trend? A few months after Young and Moench’s group say they first presented their concerns to state officials, the Utah Department of Health and the local health agency agreed to conduct a study of infant death records to determine whether pregnancy outcomes are worse for women in the area, before considering a much costlier environmental assessment. But to have a big enough sample size to rule out random chance, they say, they need to look at data across a much larger swath of geography than just Vernal.

“One of the problems we’re going to have is that we can’t just look at Vernal, we have to look at the tri-county area,” Sam LeFevre, program manager of the state’s Environmental Epidemiology Program, tells Newsweek. “The Uintah Basin stretches through all three counties, but there are natural barriers between them, like hills, so the [pollution] exposure is not going to be even across all three.”

Plus, the study won’t include data from 2013—the year that’s had the most infant deaths by far.

“We’re reliant on vital birth records registry data,” LeFevre says. “I’m talking to the registry owners and seeing what it will take [to get that]. For right now, I’m not planning on using 2013 data. You would think if there’s a health problem associated with the ozone that it wouldn’t be just that year.”

Moench says the study is a waste of time. “To us, studying it without [2013] seems pointless. Or deliberately crafted so there won’t be any alarming result. I call tell you right now that that study isn’t going to tell you anything.”

Even if the government study finds an upward trend in infant deaths, LeFevre is skeptical that the oil and gas wells will be found responsible. He says that while there is research linking air pollution to adverse pregnancy outcomes, many other studies are inconclusive or find no connection to drilling.

“Typically, negative results have a hard time getting published. I think the effects are really small and hard to find,” he says. “I’ve reviewed the literature enough to know that there are a hundred [studies] that find an effect and another 50 that don’t.”

Young, for her part, just hopes the Vernal community will come to share her concerns about air pollution and recognize that she isn’t trying to hurt the oil and gas industry.

“These are people who, if you have a flat tire, somebody is going to stop and help. It’s a good place. On a clear day, it’s one of the nicest places.”

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