by Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz
ProPublica, Sep. 16, 2011, 5:35 p.m
Susan Wallace-Babb, wearing the oxygen mask she has to wear almost every day outside, walks with her dog at home in Winnsboro, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2011. (Erin Trieb for ProPublica)
On a summer evening in June 2005, Susan Wallace-Babb went out into a neighbor's field near her ranch in Western Colorado to close an irrigation ditch. She parked down the rutted double-track, stepped out of her truck into the low-slung sun, took a deep breath, and collapsed, unconscious.
A natural gas well and a pair of fuel storage tanks sat less than a half-mile away. Later, after Wallace-Babb came to and sought answers, a sheriff's deputy told her that a tank full of gas condensate -- liquid hydrocarbons gathered from the production process -- had overflowed into another tank. The fumes must have drifted toward the field where she was working, he suggested.
The next morning Wallace-Babb was so sick she could barely move. She vomited uncontrollably and suffered explosive diarrhea. A searing pain shot up her thigh. Within days she developed burning rashes that covered her exposed skin, then lesions. As weeks passed, any time she went outdoors, her symptoms worsened. Wallace-Babb's doctor began to suspect she had been poisoned.
"I took to wearing a respirator and swim goggles outside to tend to my animals," Wallace-Babb said. "I closed up my house and got an air conditioner that would just recycle the air and not let any fresh air in."
Wallace-Babb's symptoms mirror those reported by a handful of others living near her ranch in Parachute, Colo., and by dozens of residents of communities across the country that have seen the most extensive natural gas drilling. Hydraulic fracturing , along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents' most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.
ProPublica examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits, and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states -- Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania -- that are drilling hot spots. Our review showed that cases like Wallace-Babb's go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in earnest in 2008.