The first symptom was a rash on Jacki Schilke’s nose. It appeared late in the winter of 2009 and was soon followed by a flood of other health problems afflicting Schilke, her husband, their dog, and many of the animals on their 160-acre ranch near Williston, North Dakota -- a tiny town in the state’s northwest corner that has become the epicenter of the recent Great Plains oil and gas boom.
Winters are long and cold here, and animals die from time to time; that’s just a fact of life on the dry, hilly prairie. Long hours in the fields, together with a second job, can wear a body down. Schilke’s face shows it in hard lines and weathered skin. At 53, she’s short and sturdy, with a ponytail of straw-colored hair. She says she’s always been healthy. But since that winter, her body, along with everything and everyone around her, seems to have deteriorated.
Schilke lost 25 pounds in the summer of 2009 and started having trouble breathing. She had constant diarrhea and would get lightheaded. Her husband Steve’s asthma worsened, frequently leaving him tired and short of breath. The couple began getting unusual muscle aches. The following winter, Jacki got another rash, a quarter-sized spot on her leg that wouldn’t go away. She visited a neurologist who couldn’t explain what was happening. She noticed an ammonia-like smell in the house and started looking for a source, thinking that might be what was making them sick. "Hell, I hauled shit out of here by truckloads," Jacki says. "I threw everything away. There wasn’t even a bottle of cleaner left in this house."
In June 2010, the couple’s Yorkie, Blue, got bloody diarrhea and started coughing up mucus. They had to put him to sleep a few days later. Soon after, the water from a well they used for their animals started bubbling, "like 7UP." Then the creek behind the house started bubbling, too, with a frothy film forming on the water’s surface and white residue appearing on the creek bank. The Schilkes started hauling water in from town. In August, Jacki was out feeding her bull one morning when she lost strength and fell to her knees. From that spot, she could see a giant drilling rig across the property line, a few thousand feet from her house. "It just kind of clicked," she says.