A group of environmental activists held a conference in Conway on Friday followed by a "Toxic Tour" of areas around Greenbrier, Quitman and Damascus.

The conference was held by the Coming Clean Collaborative, a nationwide umbrella organization that assists around 200 organizational partners, including the local Arkansasfracking.org.

About two dozen people were at the conference and "Toxic Tour," mostly from out of state. There were several people from New York and California, with others from Louisiana, Wyoming and Ohio.

The group is trying to collect air samples from areas in and around Faulkner County where residents report migraines, nosebleeds, respiratory problems and things like dizziness and fatigue that they say are connected with petrochemical activity. According to Stephenie Hendricks, communication director for Coming Clean, the air samples have been analyzed and will be a crucial part of a future study the group will submit to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

If a direct causal connection between illness and natural gas activity could be proven to the satisfaction of the scientific community through the peer-review process, it would be an important step in linking the several actual and possible airborne contaminants from natural gas operational sites with reported illnesses. This would give groups like Arkansasfracking.org more leverage in lobbying for more stringent state emissions and chemical storage and use regulations and statutes for Arkansas’ petrochemical industry, Hendricks said.

Possible airborne contaminants from natural gas operations include fine particles from the many diesel engines that power trucks, generators and compressors and vapors from the cocktail of chemicals used in the fracking and drilling process.

The results of air samples obtained so far were the subject of a meeting on Friday morning at the Microtel hotel off Harkrider Street, but these results were discussed in secret with members of the media specifically excluded.

But media was invited on the tour, which involved a large chartered tour bus going to several natural gas compression stations and well pads, including ones down some unpaved roads where probably no tour bus had ever gone before.

People had come from all over the country for the tour, including Laura Niederhofer of New York, a consultant for the American Sustainable Business Council. Niederhofer said that she came to Faulkner County for the "toxic tour" because, while there are a lot of common themes to petrochemical-related health and environmental concerns, "there are also nuances to every state."

The only Arkansas citizens on the tour were April and Emily Lane of Arkansasfracking.org and four residents who shared their stories about the negative side of the Fayetteville Shale operations.

One woman from the Heber Springs area said that she owned the surface, but not mineral rights to the land where her family lives. Because she didn’t own the mineral rights, she had no recourse when drilling operations began on her property over her objections. Under Arkansas law, and that of most other states, a surface owner’s rights are subservient to the holder of mineral rights, and so by law a surface owner must allow a reasonable portion of their land to be used so that the mineral owner can exercise their subsurface rights.

In this woman’s case, the exercise of the mineral owner’s rights meant the construction of a drilling pad (a large compacted gravel "slab" where exploration, drilling and other natural gas operations happen) and a pit for drilling fluid and other liquid by-products. She said that health and safety issues, as well as intimidation when she tried to get police and other authorities involved, resulted in her putting her family land on the market.

"Who wants their private land and their space and their people invaded?," she said. "I can no longer have my dream to go back to my land and there’s the sentimental value of the land … I cried almost every day for a year — that they could force you without any court system or laws … " and at this point she began crying again.

Another woman told her story of how she had to abandon her federally and state-licensed wildlife rehabilitation and refuge business after natural gas exploration led to the sickness and death of wildcats. She said that she had evidence from a post-death autopsy of one wildcat that the chemical 2-butoxyethanol (a foaming agent used in natural gas operations) caused death through kidney failure. She also described a number of health issues that seemed to clear up when she spent extended periods out-of-state that she said her local doctor refused to investigate when she asked to be tested for specific chemicals related to natural gas exploration.

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at joe.lamb@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)