Don’t Kill the Messenger: Utah Midwife Raises Questions About Fracking and Surge in Stillborn Babies

Don’t Kill the Messenger Utah Midwife Raises Questions About Fracking and Surge in Stillborn Babies

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

With over 20 years experience helping women manage safe and successful home births in Utah and Idaho, U.S., Donna Young was shocked to deliver her first stillborn baby on May 8, 2013. When she attended the baby’s funeral service several days later, she noticed an unusually high number of infant grave sites at the cemetery — all with recent dates. Instead of turning a blind eye and brushing her observation off as an unfortunate coincidence, she decided to investigate.

Young lives in Vernal, Utah — a veritable gold rush of fracking activity. When Young began connecting the dots between fracking and the spike in newborn deaths, those involved with the industry didn’t take kindly to her questions.

Lives Destroyed

Before the hate campaign began against Young, she had between 18 to 25 clients a year, and a spotless, statewide reputation. All that changed once she began to question the harm fracking was causing to those most vulnerable: babies. Presently she’s down to five clients and she’s not sure how she’ll be able to manage her ranch if things don’t turn around. Young also sleeps with a gun after receiving death threats and having someone attempt to poison her livestock. Next were the nurses and doctors who warned pregnant women to steer clear of Young because she was incompetent. The implied message: she had killed babies and would kill theirs too.

Her crime? Questioning the high infant mortality rate in the valley. The town of Vernal is small, about 10,000 people. When she stumbled upon the fact that an inordinate number of babies were dying — at least 10 in 2013 alone — she sought information from county officials, to no avail. Young didn’t give up and continued to press the issue, eventually prompting TriCounty Health to sponsor a study in 2014 to evaluate the deaths. But Young and experts in Salt Lake City were convinced the study was designed to fail, especially since the study ignored facts pertaining to Vernal air pollution, where “ozone readings rivaled the worst days of summer in New York, Los Angeles or Salt Lake City; particulate matter as bad as Mexico City; and ground air fraught with carcinogenic gases like benzene, rogue emissions from oil and gas drilling,” writes Paul Solotaroff of Rolling Stone magazine.

He adds:

“[T]he Basin, which is bound on all four sides by mountains, is a perfectly formed bowl for winter inversions, in which 20-below weather clamps down on the valley and is sealed there by warmer air above it. During those spells, when the haze is visible and the air in one’s lungs is a cold chisel, the sun’s rays reflect off the snow on the ground and cook the volatile gases into ozone. The worst such period in the Basin’s recent history was the winter of 2012-13, when nearly all the Uintah mothers whose babies died were pregnant.”

The Uintah Basin is home to more than 11,000 fracking wells, which spew an enormous amount of soot and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into Vernal. With an inversion-filled winter, like the one in 2012-2013, the VOC count equates to the exhaust of 100 million cars.

TriCounty also overlooked research that links mothers’ exposure to polluted air with fetal problems like developmental disorders, birth defects and stillbirths. The conclusion of the study? The deaths were classified “not statistically insignificant.” When asked about possible causes for the deaths, Sam LeFevre, an epidemiologist with the Utah State Health Department who handled the study for TriCounty, suggested health problems of the mothers, including diabetes, prenatal neglect and smoking.

Which brings us back to Solotaroff, who rightly asks: “How many dead infants does it take before you’ll accept that there’s a problem?”

A Surge in Birth Defects and Miscarriages

Young not only saw a dramatic increase in stillborns around the winter of 2012-2013, but also a spike in birth defects as well. One girl was born with a rare and extreme vision disorder that requires the child to wear coke bottle glasses. This was the first baby with a birth defect that Young had delivered in all her years as a midwife. Several more followed in the next 15 months. A girl with a malformed epiglottis, which causes choking when she attempted to feed. A boy born tongue-tied and clubfoot; a girl tongue-tied and lip-tied. In all cases, surgeries were required within a few days of birth.

But this wasn’t the end of the tragedy. A few weeks after Solotaroff returned home from interviewing the people of Vernal, he received a call from Young, saying 4 of her 5 clients had miscarried within weeks of each other. Apparently, all the women who lost their babies lived in town and said their water tasted bad. Young went to the women’s houses and took samples, then employed a monitoring device used by drillers to test the water. Most were found positive for toxicity from hydrogen sulfide — an exceptionally deadly gas that’s often released by drilling. Small amounts of it can cause miscarriages.

The levels of hydrogen sulfide Young discovered in the samples were 7,000 times greater than the acceptable limit set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency.

When all is said and done, the bottom line is this: If we care about the health of the planet — and its inhabitants — fracking needs to end.

Learn more, spread the word and get involved. Here are several resources to get you started:

Gasland Part II

Gasland Part II documents how the stakes have been raised on all sides in one of the most devastating environmental issues rapidly spreading the globe. This sequel further enriches the argument that the gas industry’s portrayal of natural gas as a clean and safe alternative to oil is a lie, where in fact fracked wells inevitably leak over time, and vent exuberantly more potent greenhouse gasses such as methane in cumulative effect, not to mention the continued string of cases of severe water contamination across the United States and even cases as far away as Australia.

Triple Divide

Actor Mark Ruffalo co-narrates this 18-month cradle-to-grave fracking investigation by Public Herald, an investigative news nonprofit co-founded by journalists Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman. Triple Divide features never before seen interviews with industry giants and advocates, exclusive reports with impacted landowners, uncovered state documents, and expert testimonies.

Dangers of Fracking presents an interactive display that clearly describes the process of fracking, how it harms our health and the environment and actions to take to ban fracking.

Americans Against Fracking is a national coalition to ban fracking. In the past year, the organization has stopped plans to open the Delaware River Basin to fracking, prevented fracking from coming to New York, passed legislation to ban fracking and fracking waste imports in New Jersey, achieved a long term moratorium in Vermont, and passed over 200 local measures to prevent fracking or to support statewide bans from California to Ohio, Colorado to North Carolina and elsewhere.

Frack Action works to protect our water, air, and public health from the dangerous practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The group is engaged in a public awareness campaign aimed at exposing the truth on fracking and a grassroots organizing campaign building the critical mass necessary to stop it.

Occupy features trending fracking news articles from around the United States.

Article sources:

Previous articles by Carolanne Wright:

About the author:

Carolanne Wright

I’m Carolanne — a writer, chef, traveler and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability, organics and joyful living. It’s good to have you here. If you would like to learn more, connect with me at or visit


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