By Jared Chausow
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By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
America's hydraulic fracturing gold rush portends the greatest environmental disaster of a generation
But get Wilson on the phone, and you'll hear the sweet, commonsense lilt of a Texas girl who just happens to have a blog full of links to disaster stories, some of which she has experienced firsthand.
In 1995, Wilson moved from Fort Worth to Wise County, where she purchased 42 acres of land. "I gave up a great deal to move to the country, where I thought my children would enjoy clean air and clean living," she says.
Soon after Wilson arrived, so did Mitchell Energy. The company's owner, George Mitchell, had long known that a gold mine of natural gas lay deep beneath the shale that surrounds Fort Worth. He was dead set on getting it out, though geologists told him it was a pipe dream.
Undaunted, Mitchell spent 18 years and millions of dollars—with financing from the U.S. Department of Energy—to prove them wrong. By 1998, his company had developed a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals that could break through shale.
The first wells sprouted in 2000. But the onslaught wouldn't begin until 2004, when the Bush administration ruled that fracking "posed no threat to drinking water."
Bush's scientists would later be discredited, of course. You didn't need a doctorate from MIT to know that pumping toxins into the ground presented some sort of danger.
The Bush administration seemed to know this as well. A year later, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed a new energy bill through Congress. It not only exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, but also allowed drillers like Halliburton to keep the ingredients of their toxic cocktails secret.
The industry was presented with a golden opportunity: It could now harvest the riches buried deep beneath the soil, while bearing no responsibility—or public scrutiny—for any damage it left behind.
By 2008, says Wilson, "You couldn't move without running into a well."
She remembers when the well that sits just a half mile from her home was first drilled. "I can remember waking up one night," she says. "I saw the lights of the rig shining into my house, the sound of the engines and the generators going. The next morning, I woke up, and the sky was just brown. It just stunk. It was awful."
Like her neighbors, Wilson received a knock on her door from a land man asking if she'd like to get rich by leasing her property. But unlike most of the folks in Wise, Wilson didn't jump. Not because she couldn't use the money, but because "my mother taught me that nothing in life is free."
Instead, she drove to the well pads to see them for herself. That's when she noticed huge pits of putrid-smelling liquid nearby. These were dumping ponds filled with toxic water that was supposed to evaporate into the atmosphere. But they were lined with plastic tarps that often tore, allowing cancer-causing chemicals—like benzene, methanol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, arsenic, barium, and lead—to leak into the groundwater. In large doses, they can be lethal. But even lesser exposure can cause birth defects.
Wilson began regularly writing about fracking on her blog, Bluedaze. In one post, she writes about a friend who witnessed a driver of a wastewater truck dumping his load into a pasture where cows were grazing. In another, she links to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about Wise's 3,998 active wells—and its title for the most polluted air in Texas.
She writes of people who report that their children are passing out in the shower due to gas leaks in their water supply. Others discover their farm animals are losing hair or dying after drinking from contaminated streams.
Wilson chronicles spills into creeks, ponds, and rivers, as well as the bright orange flares that would light up the night sky, thanks to companies burning off "economically irrelevant" reserves. Then there are the fatalities here and there, usually workers killed by explosions.
Begging Wilson to post home videos of their flaming faucets and dying animals, people from around Texas and as far away as Colorado, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania began contacting her with horror stories of their own.
Steven Lipsky was among them. He was just another Texas homeowner with a flaming faucet. But he also had something else: confirmation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that fracking had left his water laced with benzene, capable of causing both cancer and birth defects. The danger had forced his family to evacuate their home.
After Wilson posted video of his combustible faucet, Lipsky sued Range Resources for poisoning his water. He also asked the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees environmental issues in the state, to back the feds' finding.
But Range Resources knew that if Lipsky won, thousands of homeowners would set upon the industry, seeking restitution for poisoned land. So it hired the best scientists money could buy—in this case, Harvard and MIT grads as well as Halliburton's experts. Then it took its case to a Railroad Commission already stacked in its favor.
As the Dallas Observer detailed, nearly every member hearing the case had a financial interest in Range or one of its subsidiaries. Even Ethical Corporation's Entine, who is critical of anti-fracking arguments, admits that "the Railroad Commission is totally corrupt."