Donna Young, midwife — RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
The smartphone-sized grave marker is nearly hidden in the grass at Rock Point Cemetery. The name printed on plastic-coated paper — Beau Murphy — has been worn away. Only the span of his life remains.
“June 18, 2013 – June 18, 2013”
For some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau and a dozen other infants died in this oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country..?
But just raising that possibility raises the ire of many who live in and around Vernal. Drilling has been an economic driver and part of the fabric of life here since the 1940s. And if all that energy development means the Uintah Basin has a particularly nasty problem with pollution, so be it, many residents say. Don’t blame drilling for baby deaths that obituaries indicate were six times higher than the national average last year…
“Suffice it to say that air pollution from drilling is a part of it,” Dr. Brian Moench said of the Vernal-area deaths.
Moench, a Salt Lake City-based anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, admits that establishing a scientifically solid link between dead babies and drilling pads is complicated…
Moench took it seriously this year when Vernal midwife Donna Young told him that she had researched obituaries and was alarmed by the high numbers of dead babies.
Young and Moench were able to convince the TriCounty Health Department in Vernal to work with the state on a study to determine if Young’s trend figures are correct.
Moench said that people who aren’t looking at the possibility of a connection “have blinders on…”
Part of the reluctance of residents around Vernal to ascribe any ill effects to energy-field pollution could be tied to the average $3,963 average monthly nonfarm wage in Uintah County — the highest in Utah…
The Utah Department of Health is now working on a study. Epidemiologists initially are using birth and death certificates to determine if there truly was a spike in infant deaths, as Young’s numbers show.
Her numbers show an upward four-year trend in infant deaths: One in every 95.5 burials in Uintah County in 2010 was a baby, according to Young. In 2011 it was one in every 53. In 2012, one in every 39.7. And in 2013 the number jumped to one in every 15…
Besides oil-and-gas-stoked pollution, there could be many other causes…Twice as many residents here smoke than in the rest of Utah. More residents, in an area rife with new fast-food chains, are overweight. More residents admit to drinking heavily. There are more teen mothers and more mothers on average who don’t get good prenatal care.
For now, infant deaths have dropped back to average. Residents are reluctant to talk about the infant-death issue. Many are focusing on a future that is filled with expanded fossil-fuel prospects. Nearly 85 percent of Vernal residents indicated in a recent survey that they welcome oil shale development.
Give me a chance for a voice and a vote – I’d vote for a wind farm or a solar farm on the mesa across our valley. We haven’t wind speeds averaging as high as downstate; but, we sure have sunlight.
Anyone want to drill for oil in my neck of the prairie, I’ll be the first to set this old butt down in the middle of the highway to stop them.