I was driving along Interstate 40, determined to reach Memphis before dark for a hot dinner and visit with relatives. My daughters were both restless in their booster seats, my youngest feeling ill. “Mommy, my head hurts, my ear hurts,” cried my 4-year-old baby girl. Thankfully, her vomiting had subsided and she was sipping liquids after our visit to Arkansas. I was feeling like the worst mother in the world!
It seemed innocent enough to plan a Spring Break trip with the girls when my husband couldn’t get away from work. The girls had loads of fun on this trip, until our stop in rural Arkansas. We had planned to spend the better part of the day touring Faulkner and Van Buren Counties, a nearby area north of Little Rock with residents from Arkansas Fracking.
I was interviewing a woman for my blog who had air quality concerns ever since her pasture had turned into a natural gas hydraulic fracturing site. I felt a little silly about packing respirator masks, but I took the extra precaution in case we needed them. We were not going inside an actual industrial park, we’d be viewing what was happening around homes, farms and schools in the community where our guide, April Lane and her family live. On one of our first stops along the cow pastures and sprawling front yards, I let the girls sit inside the minivan while I stepped outside the vehicle. I took a deep breath, and asked my guides, “What am I smelling?” They answered, “you don’t know what it is!”
It certainly wasn’t a typical farm smell. I would know that, because I’d grown up in a place that looked a lot like this, just over the Missouri line. Lane and her husband are raising a son a little younger than my daughters. Her son runs and plays in a place where fracking facilities are now as common as cow pastures. They know many other families with young children who live and work in the area. They don’t even get regular notices when unknown toxins, some potentially radioactive, are allowed into the air. Concerned about air quality, Lane organized a local Bucket Brigade with help from the group, Global Community Monitor. They are trying to quantify what no government agency or business will tell them. But their gut tells them what is happening. Fracking is making them sick. Lane said nausea, nose bleeds and rashes have been plaguing multiple people in the area, and that was even before an unrelated ruptured oil pipeline spill in the nearby town of Mayflower.
A 2008 report by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality stated its work done with a temporary Environmental Protect Agency grant was incomplete and could not answer long-term safety concerns about fracking in the Fayetteville Shale region. I insisted we cut our visit short because of my daughter’s illness. But my guides were sure to point out not only fracking sites with multiple wells and storage tanks, but open swimming pool-sized ponds of used fracking fluid just yards away from someone’s front door. Much as I wanted to think those masks protected my kids, I later realized they didn’t provide the correct filter needed for small, gaseous particles. I had also brought along the rescue inhaler. I had tried to take precautions. Yet, I left rural Arkansas feeling a big load of mommy guilt. Why had I brought them along in the first place?
In reality, I had no other choice if I was to combine parenting with my blogging life. I was so surprised when my baby girl was nauseated at 5 am in our modest motel room (the only one to choose from in the tiny town of Greenbrier), before we’d even seen a fracking site. After I calmed her down and we checked out, I noticed the only other hotel guests seemed to be out-of-state contract energy workers. Their trucks were covered in dust. I assumed my daughter had caught a flu bug and wondered which one of us would get the “flu” next. No one else did. Coincidentally, she’s the only one in the family with a history of reactive airway disorder. Our guides shared that this isn’t the first time an out-of-town visitor had gotten sick. By the time the day was done, my daughter was feeling normal again, no more tummy ache and no more earache. I’ll never know exactly why she woke up so sick in Greenbrier, Arkansas. Feeling like the worst mother in the world, I have my suspicions. My strong maternal instinct will never allow me to visit there again.
Anne Brock is an Ozarks farm girl who showed her first hog at the fair when she was just 4 years old and learned to sew in 4-H Club. She now gardens organically and enjoys the outdoors on her family’s 2 ½ acres in Appalachia. Trained as a broadcast journalist at the University of Missouri, Brock formerly produced local television news. Anne created the website, FlourSackMama.com, where she blogs about “carrying on the best of Grandma’s traditions, while improving on what we know better.” She enjoys being invited as a guest radio and television news contributor. This married mother of two has been an advocate for parents who want a healthy future for their children.