Photo: Richard Foulser (Doug and 'Genie McMullan)
"We should bring the gas masks," says Thomas, wearing jeans, boots, a burgundy zip-up sweater, and a black pillbox-style hat with floral embroidery and loading her thermos of coffee into her Ford Taurus. "We're heading into oil and gas development hell." First stop: Deaver, Wyoming, about an hour's drive from Clark, where Doug and 'Genie McMullan run a modest goat farm.
On the drive, Thomas explains that the McMullans share their farm with underground pipelines, oil storage tanks, wastewater pits, and two humongous pumpjacks pecking slowly at the earth like giant birds of prey. Over the past nine years, she says, trucks have run roughshod over their property, pipelines have burst beneath it, and there's been constant digging in their pasture to fix the pipelines. Meanwhile, 'Genie has respiratory issues, and some of their goats have miscarried. "When things start going wrong," Thomas says, "the question isn't 'When's it going to stop?' It's 'What'll go wrong next?'"
In the McMullans' tidy wood-paneled trailer, while 'Genie feeds a baby goat in her lap, Thomas critiques the couple's letters to the company pumping oil on their property. She's advising Doug and 'Genie to fight for compensation for damages and an agreement that would set guidelines for future use of their land. "That's why this lady is so important," says Doug, who has watery blue eyes and a mustache the color of hay. He jokes, "Every time I mention guns or bombs in my letters, she deletes it." But Thomas is also the couple's de facto therapist. As the pollution stressed their business, it stressed their marriage, too. Living in an area with few other people around, the McMullans took out their strains on each other—until Thomas showed up, willing to listen for hours. She knows what they're going through: After the blowout on Line Creek, it took her five years to sleep through the night. She'd wake frequently, put on her boots, and head out the door to make sure that nothing was about to explode.
Outside, Thomas hands me a gas mask and leads us through the mud toward the far end of the farm, where we're met by a pumpjack and two towering storage tanks that reek of hydrogen sulfide (think: rancid hard-boiled eggs). Filthy paper towels are scattered on the ground. "There was a spill the other day," says Doug, from beneath his camouflage baseball cap. "They're trying to clean up an oil spill with paper towels."
Thomas nods. "This is what we're dealing with," she says. Then she adds, "I think we're gonna get this cleaned up the right way. Even if it's a bar fight all the way to the end."
Next: How they're making progress