The next day, Thomas drives 180 miles south to John and Catherine Fenton's sprawling alfalfa farm in Pavillion, Wyoming, where she's greeted with hugs. As John leads Thomas out to his pickup, they discuss the local situation. Louis Meeks's water stinks like gasoline. Twenty households are drinking water provided by Encana, which drills in the area. John is a rugged 41-year-old farmer who quit a lucrative job welding gas lines in 2001. "The industry is where you go if you want to make decent money," he says, pulling over a ridge to reveal a herd of cattle gathered amid 125 wells. "But there's a trade-off. We're just destroying things that we can never get back." John points toward the home of his neighbors Jeff and Rhonda Locker. "Their water passes through a filtration system, and it turns those filters black," he says. Thomas asks about Rhonda's neuropathy. "She says it feels like somebody's running a knife through her bones," John says. As for his own family, "Our property value is half what it was. My wife has lost her sense of smell. Whenever my son gets in the shower, I wonder what the water might be doing to him."
In 2008, Thomas helped get a group from Pavillion, Clark, and Deaver a meeting at the EPA office in Denver, which resulted in an investigation by the agency. A draft of their landmark findings, published in December 2011, linked fracking to groundwater contamination. (In August of that year, an environmental group uncovered an obscure 1987 EPA report that did the same, contradicting longstanding industry claims that fracking has never contaminated groundwater.) Thomas was thrilled: She could now appeal to legislators to regulate more carefully. But instead of seeking peer-review and finalizing the report, the agency handed it over to Wyoming in June so the state's own scientists could further investigate the findings. Encana is now helping to fund a follow-up study. "The EPA is backing off studies related to fracking," says Thomas, incredulous.
As Doug Fenton and Thomas head into his tool shop for a local meeting of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Fenton's mother-in-law passes out slices of her extraordinary blueberry and peach crumb-topped pies. This is Deb Thomas's grassroots army. She knows progress depends on keeping her troops positive, but she will later express frustration about the fate of the EPA report, once a bright beacon of hope. "Right now, they have no plan, no experts," Thomas says of Wyoming's follow-up study. So she is yet again rallying residents of Wyoming to voice their disapproval. Even Thomas knows she can't stop the trillion dollar oil and gas industry dead in its tracks. But she'll speak as loud as she can until there are enforceable rules and more state inspectors (currently, Wyoming has 12 to oversee its 38,000 wells). "This is hard, discouraging work," Thomas says, "but think about it: You really can't go anywhere now without hearing about fracking. It's meetings like this that made that happen."
Around midnight, Thomas picks up her cell phone. "I'm heading home," she tells Dick. "I'll be safe. I love you." Twenty years after moving to Wyoming, the couple are still living out of their trailer. "We've put everything on hold," Thomas says, "but that's what happens to everyone who has these issues. You wait to feel safe. You wait for answers." For Thomas, it's been an active wait. She's thought for years about moving, but she has a purpose here. The landscape that drew her here for enjoyment and peace now means something completely different. It's here to be preserved.
As Wyoming goes to sleep, Deb Thomas throttles on across the high plains. The northern lights flicker in the sky. Pumpjacks rise and fall by the roadside, and flare stacks glow in the distance. Their burn, as the clock strikes 2 A.M., is matched by Thomas's. This late and this far out into the country, it's just her and them—the only things still working.
Howie Kahn is a writer living in New York. He profiled Texas environmental activist Hilton Kelley for O's September 2011 issue.
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