Photo: Richard Foulser (The nearby Crosby 25-3 well pad)
On Line Creek, Deb Thomas was fighting back. In 2005, she organized her community of Clark—with more than a year's worth of phone calls, public meetings, mailers, and e-mail blasts—to keep a seismic exploration at least a quarter mile away from anybody's home or private water well. (A seismic exploration is a way to scout for new oil and gas, in this case by detonating explosive charges.) "Once they pushed the seismic back," says Thomas, "they didn't get the results they were after, and it stopped them from drilling." Next she helped drum up enough local opposition to stop Windsor from boring into the vast Shoshone National Forest, our nation's oldest national forest. To get people's attention, in addition to the phone calls and e-mails, she placed stories in the Cody Enterprise and Billings Gazette. She even led field trips into the forest to convince anybody who would listen just how much damage could be done. "We seem to think that it's all for us," says Thomas, in a rare moment of unguarded passion, "that we should be able to go wherever we want on the planet. Love me or hate me, I feel very connected to the land, and I'm going to be a pit bull about protecting it."
In 2006, Windsor began work on the 8,000-foot-deep Crosby 25-3 well a half mile up the road from Thomas's house. That summer, Thomas remembers getting a phone call. "It was my neighbor," she says. "He told me the Crosby well was about to blow. He told me they couldn't control it. He told me: 'Get out. Get out now.' "
Dick was away visiting his sick mother outside Seattle, and Quinn, 18 at the time, was working in the nearby town of Powell. Thomas was alone in her cluttered home office, so zoned into her work that she hadn't noticed her nose running and her eyes burning. After years of living so close to a pad, those symptoms were normal. Irritants always seemed to linger in the air. Plus, Thomas had her air conditioning set to full blast. She didn't hear what was going on up the road. The release of chemicals, including an estimated 101 tons of methane—a greenhouse gas 20 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide—sounds only like a low hiss.
Thomas thought first about her animals. "I asked my neighbor if there was time to move the horses," she says. He told her no. So she put down her papers and walked out the front door. Nothing looked different, but the gas was detectable. "You feel it on your skin," says Thomas. "You taste it." After calling for her two dogs, Buddy and Callie, Thomas drove down the mountain to the local community center, where she found a handful of neighbors who had been evacuated by the fire department. Details slowly began to emerge. Due to a buildup of pressure, the ground was beginning to crack around the pad, and workers didn't have enough heavy mud to shut down the well. "I later found out there were about 30 blowholes spewing drilling fluids out of the ground for hours," says Thomas. It took Windsor three days to get the well under control. "The whole time," Thomas recalls, "there was just this big fear of the blowout turning into a fire. If it caught a spark, it would have burned down the whole area and everything in it." (Windsor Energy did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
In the end, the blowout was a near miss. But it marked a tipping point. The serene silence of Clark had been shattered, leaving Thomas no choice but to match her surroundings and grow inordinately loud. She'd already signed on as a community organizer with Powder River Basin Resource Council, pulling in $26,000 a year to fight some of the most powerful companies on the planet. But now, more intensely than ever, Thomas knew protecting families like hers would be her life's work. "There are all these people just getting creamed," she says. "So that's who I represent: the people of Wyoming who are impacted and don't have a voice."
Next: Visiting the site of a spill