By Blair Jackson
Jack and Mary White live in a modest house in Hartford, a small community of about 650. An herb
garden flanks the east of the house, and rows of kale line the west. A wooden sign, painted white, reads “Makedo Farms.” Making do is exactly what Jack and Mary have been doing for the past eight years, since a natural gas well was drilled a mere 250 feet from their property.
When Jack White retired from the oil and gas industry in 1985, he and his wife decided to pursue their passion of gardening. It had been Mary’s lifelong dream to live in a place “with lots of flowers,” so the two began a business in which they sold flowers and plants.
Photos from those days show Mary and Jack standing in their garden. Mary stands in front of pink and red roses. A bird house hangs from a tree branch. “They call this the Hartford Rose,” says Jack, pointing to the pink roses in the photo. “I’ve never seen it anywhere else.” When their garden was destroyed in a fly ash disaster, the Whites moved to a plot of family land four miles away to start fresh.
After 20 years of experimenting with hoop houses, vegetation and gardening, the couple felt confident they could start a small organic farm. Jack and Mary, who were then 74 and 68, spent a year clearing the land, buying supplies and beginning construction. They drilled a water well and had the water tested and flow rated. One day a representative of the natural gas industry came to tell the Whites that drilling would begin in the area.
“The man told me where they were going to drill the well,” Jack said. “I told him that it didn’t matter where he drilled it, if he drilled it the way he was going to, it would ruin the water. I asked him, ‘Who made the decision to put this right here by my well and my home?’”
According to Jack, the representative replied, “I’ve just decided I’m going to drill it right here.”
The seemingly arbitrary decision of that single individual brought drastic consequences to the White family. A former drilling superintendent, Jack recounts times when drill sites were moved in order to avoid cow barns, chicken houses and water supplies. “Nowadays they won’t move a foot for nobody,” he said.
In the beginning stages of the drilling process, Jack turned on the gardening hose with plans to fill the bird bath with water. Foam poured from the hose instead, completely covering the structure with suds. “You couldn’t even see the bird bath,” recounted Jack. “It was just foam.”
Because of his background in the oil and gas industry, Jack was able to identify the foam as the product of rust inhibitors, chemicals used on the pipes in the wells.
The basin that once attracted blue birds and wrens now lies in the yard, tipped over and unused, a testament to the White’s unreliable water supply, eight long years after that first day of drilling.
“Our well has hydrogen sulfide. When it rains, it bubbles through the ground,” Jack said. He said the smell of rotten eggs is the indicator. Without a viable irrigation system, the Whites were forced to forego their plans to raise and sell organic produce. They have one hoop house now, but try to use fresh water as often as possible, using gutters to collect rain water. “If I have to use a little [well] water, I put it around the roots,” said Jack. “If I spray it on the leaves, it kills them. The leaves wilt up … [and turn] yellow and black.”
Jack said although the tainted water supply has erased any hopes for producing something of commercial value, he and Mary are still able to live from the land. “As long as I’m half way healthy, I can produce enough food for us.” Jack and Mary make do, but they say it is unfair for the younger generations — those with children, and those who want to settle down or build a farm.
The water in the Hartford community has supported its people and their livelihood for almost two
centuries. Jack walks through a cemetery, the final resting place of Arkansans from as far back as 1837. Parked beyond the cemetery and guarded by a chain link fence, sit five white tanker trucks. These are the trucks that carry the waste from the wells to the dump sites such as Sugar Loaf Creek. Towering in the distance is Sugar Loaf Mountain. The bare earth of a treeless patch looks like a brown scar from a distance. This is where a botched drill site caused 88 acres worth of erosion from improper leveling procedures. Boulders now fall from the loose earth, roots of trees become unanchored, causing landslides.
“Nobody’s ever really done anything about it. They’ve done about as much damage as they can do,” said Jack, one of a few residents who has gone public with his opinion and experiences concerning the natural gas industry. When he and Mary noticed the tankers were disposing of chemicals directly into Sugar Loaf Creek, they took photos from their front porch. They even hopped the fence to take photos of the hoses that ran from the tankers to the creek and released chemicals into the water.
Photos show the water carrying a red, rusty orange tint; and, in a separate pool, a neon purple color glows in an unnatural light. They showed their evidence to the ADEQ, but until the Sebastian County judge got involved, no agents were sent to investigate the dumping sites. Even after a dumping was ordered to discontinue at the site, the dumping continued as before; and though it has slowed considerably over the years, Jack said he hopes to see a time when the wells stop pumping and dump sites are no longer needed.
“The earth will heal itself if they will stop pumping,” he said.
The Bluff is a water hole that used to be a social gathering place. Here teenagers went swimming and played on rope swings. Preachers used the water for baptisms. Jack says the last time he was there, the rope was still hanging from the branches, but has since been torn down. A compressor station hums a few hundred yards away, and in the dusk one can see trash littering the side of the road. Once crystal clear, the murky water reflects the skyline at dusk.
During the actual drilling process, the noise, vibrations and lights from the well forced Jack and Mary from their home. They sought refuge on the quieter gravel roads, miles away from the drilling site, but were unable to sleep in the car. After a few sleepless nights, the Whites, who had no income other than social security, purchased a hotel room.
It was after the drilling had stopped that the Whites were faced with the biggest tragedy. As the natural gas wells were allowed to blow clean, a cloud of methane gas fell over the house. Mary was alone in the house, washing dishes.
Jack said the day had begun like any other. They had eaten breakfast, and he had left to cut briars in the meadow behind the house.
“For some reason, I thought, I need to talk to Mary. I threw my tools down, which I don’t usually do, and came straight into the house and yelled, ‘Mary!’ Her face was dark. She wouldn’t respond, and I had enough first aid classes around rigs to know what was wrong.” Jack rushed Mary to the hospital, where the doctor confirmed symptoms of overexposure to methane gas.
In a 2009 Letter to the Editor, sent to “The Mansfield Citizen”, Mary recounted her memory of that day.
“I … cannot remember anything until I was well on the way to the hospital in Fort Smith. After a 40-mile ride and checking into the emergency service, my blood pressure was well over 200. I remained in the emergency [room] until the blood pressure reached a safe level. The doctor said all of this was normal with methane gas exposure and that another 10 minutes might have been too late. What we did not know was that excessive high blood pressure could damage the eye retinas, and a few months later, I had a compete separation of one retina and damage to the other, followed by a loss of hearing.”
The Whites were given $3,000 by the natural gas industry to cover the hospital bills associated with Mary’s initial symptoms, but the couple was responsible for half of the $25,000 that went toward the five surgeries needed to save the sight in her left eye.
“We never did pursue (legal action) because we didn’t think we could afford it. We consulted with attorneys, and they all had the same thing to say. We would have to sit down and write down what we lost. ‘How many turnips did you lose?’ they asked, but it wasn’t what we lost, it was what we couldn’t develop. We thought Mary was going to be OK. We didn’t know about the long term affects of this. We thought, ‘Leave them alone, and they will leave us alone.’”
Legal recourse against the natural gas industry is complicated because the weight of providing evidence falls upon the citizen, and the Whites have no proof that the natural gas well contaminated their water supply or dumped hazardous waste inappropriately.
“They don’t have any worry,” Jack said of the natural gas industry. But for the Whites, each day carries uncertainty. “We don’t have any idea what kind of chemicals they are using, so we don’t know what to watch for. Every so often, they come out and treat the well. Acidize it, or clean it, and I don’t know what chemicals they are pumping in there.
“Sometimes we get to the point where we say, ‘What difference does it make?’ and we just let it go.”
At the end of her letter to the editor, Mary wrote, “Each night we worry about our well exploding as we now have gas in our well next to our bedroom. Add this to financial loss, agriculture income loss, health loss and security.”
Jack echoed her sentiment. “It leave us awful unsure,” he said. “All we can do is try to live here, hoping that don’t take all the water nor blow us up.”
For the Whites, there is no choice but to make do.