Vernal, Utah: An Oil Town with an Infant Mortality Problem

by | January 13, 2015 AT 7:00 PM

By John M. Glionna

Veteran midwife Donna Young prides herself on delivering healthy babies. In 20 years, she has coached hundreds of pregnant women in this energy boomtown.

She calls them her girls.

When one mother delivered a stillborn infant in May 2013 _ Young's first-ever such fatality _ she grieved with the parents, who had a plaster cast made of the hands and feet of the daughter they named Natalie.

While attending the funeral at Rock Point Cemetery, Young noticed new grave markers for seven other infants. Another five babies would soon be buried there, she said, bringing the total to 13 for the year.

Young isn't sure how many were stillborn and how many died before their first birthday. Yet she knew one thing: All of the mothers had carried their babies to term in Vernal.

Young asked herself: Was this an aberration? Or was there a common cause? Could the deaths be tied to the oil industry, the region's economic powerhouse?

No one knows if the deaths are linked _ a state investigation is underway _ but the questions Young posed have unleashed angry and bitter feelings in this desert town of 35,000, where half the annual budget comes from oil and natural gas exploration. Even mothers of the deceased babies publicly insisted oil drilling wasn't to blame.

The midwife became a pariah. She got phone calls warning her to "shut up" or leave town. One caller said a few dead babies wasn't worth putting any heat on the oil companies. She was dismissed as a meddling midwife and pilloried on local talk radio and in Internet chat rooms. Recently, she found rat poison in the cattle feed at her ranch 40 miles outside town, but none of her animals got sick.

Meanwhile, some townsfolk suspect drug use and other unhealthy habits caused the infant deaths.v "These oil fields guys drink a dozen Monster energy drinks a day. Many do drugs and exist solely on hot dogs," said Lucas Massey, 33, a natural gas operator. "With lifestyles like that, how can people even hope to have healthy babies?"

Seth Lyman, an air-quality researcher for Utah State University here, also doubts oil drilling is responsible, calling it "extremely unlikely that poor air quality in Vernal is the primary cause of an infant mortality epidemic."

Yet air quality has been an issue in Vernal. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study showed winter ozone layers here spiked well above Environmental Protection Agency safety levels, though no studies have linked ozone to the deaths.

Mayor Sonya Norton called Young's questions an insult to a town trying to clean up its air. "People get very protective of what we have here," she said. "If you challenge our livelihood, it's considered personal."

Using a portion of $100 million in mineral lease returns from energy companies, Vernal built a $15 million City Hall complex. "Without oil," she said, "this town would be a couple of storefronts and a gas station."

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Young recalls the moment baby Natalie was born, how her head lolled and turned blue, how the child never took a breath.

The mother remained stoic: "Whatever is meant to be, will be," she said. "It's in God's hands."

Days after Young spotted the graves at Natalie's funeral, she began checking obituaries and records at area cemeteries for stillborn babies and children up to age 1. In 2010, 1 in every 95 graves dug in Uintah County contained a baby, she said. For 2013, she said, the rate rose to 1 in every 14.

A 59-year-old mother of six, Young said that calling the newspaper isn't her style, so instead, she contacted Joseph Shaffer, then director of the TriCounty Health Department.

Shaffer worried there might be something to Young's concern: More than a dozen dead infants in one year seemed like a high number for such a small community, he said, no matter what the cause.

He called for a public meeting on the matter and a few dozen residents attended, including elected officials, physicians and the parents of one dead baby. After Shaffer mentioned that Young's concerns prompted the meeting, many people treated her as an outcast. Doctors she knew from local hospitals scowled at her, she said.

The public attacks blindsided her. "I'm pro-oil," she said amid tears, in the town's modern brick-and-glass public library. "Two of my sons work in the industry. I want oil to be here, the economy to thrive."

In the end, county officials asked the state to investigate, and the Utah Department of Health is now studying infant mortality rates from 1991 to 2013 in Vernal and two other towns in the Uintah Valley to determine risk factors.

The fallout of the meeting was fierce.

A month after the public meeting, Young said, a doctor warned her that local power brokers were "coming after you politically; they're going to destroy you."

The local Ashley Regional Medical Center wasn't pleased either. "The physicians were very upset about her stirring this up," said hospital spokeswoman Debbie Spafford. "Our take is that she went to the cemetery, counted a bunch of headstones and made a bunch of insinuations."

The public also attacked Shaffer. "Air quality is a touchy issue here," Shaffer said. He stepped down as health department director amid the tumult, and he feels for Young. "She's been treated unfairly," he said.

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