As fracking’s proponents regularly point out, there have been no scientifically proven cases indisputably linking fracking to health problems or to water or air contamination. Indeed, according to the RRC—which says its staff “bases regulatory decisions on science and facts”—nowhere in the regulator’s records is there “a single documented water-contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas.” Although reports suggest that other aspects of the extraction process, such as wastewater disposal and leaks from faulty well casings, can lead to contamination, critics, including Wilson, generally agree that incontrovertible scientific evidence is difficult to come by. But they do not agree that this means fracking is safe—only that there hasn’t been enough time or effort put into examining these issues. Baseline testing of water and air before fracking has begun would provide valuable data but is rarely done. And a lot of vital information cannot be publicly disclosed, because it is buried in the sealed court records of cases in which people have sued energy companies for damages and won settlements.
Meanwhile, for critics of fracking—and certainly for many of those, including Wilson, who have lived with it—the anecdotal evidence is enough to cause serious alarm. On the health front, “we are seeing the same array of symptoms across the country,” but very little is being done to explore the causes, says David Brown. A toxicologist, Brown helped found the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which assists people with health problems in the Marcellus Shale, a bitterly contentious front in the fracking wars that stretches from New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio into West Virginia and Maryland. Nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, neurological and breathing problems—these are some of the symptoms that have surfaced in fracking zones and that “should be met with an immediate investigation by the CDC,” Brown says. “Look at the West Nile virus. There were so few cases, but people acted immediately.”
After signing the Braden lease, Wilson stayed on her land for two years. But with all the fracking going on around her property, she says, “I felt like I was living on the edge of a volcano.” In 2010 she moved to an apartment in the nearby town of Denton, leaving her cherished horses in the care of a neighbor. The following year, she sold her ranchland and gave the horses to the property’s new owner. Today she speaks of leaving her land as the end of her American dream. “If you are living your dream, you don’t just tell yourself to stop dreaming it,” she says. “You have to find a new one. But I couldn’t.” In fact, that dream had been a nightmare for some time, what with Wilson’s financial problems, her struggles as a single working mother living alone far out in the countryside and the stresses of a job that felt deeply unfulfilling. Perhaps for that reason, the leasing of her mineral rights, the sale of her land and, indeed, her whole confrontation with fracking seem to have marked the rebirth of Sharon Wilson.
With her first check from Braden Exploration, Wilson bought herself some equipment—a laptop, a camera, a video recorder, binoculars—and made a $1,000 donation to Earthworks. She began to volunteer for the group at night and on weekends while working her day job as an office administrator at the University of North Texas. She focused her volunteer work on Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), which helps communities around the country that are affected by drilling.
An activist finds her voice