A Community Cracked Open by Fracking

Posted June 13, 2018 7:34 p.m. EDT

Any ideology operating under the seismic pressures of the actual world will reveal a seam of inconsistency, a line of vulnerability running through it like a stress fracture. Free-market conservatives, for instance, have tried to square their support for big business with their professed fondness for little communities, sometimes by suggesting that the interests of both are one and the same.

Eliza Griswold will tell you what happens when they are not. Scratch that: Eliza Griswold will show you what happens when they are not. Her sensitive and judicious new book, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” is neither an outraged sermon delivered from a populist soapbox nor a pinched, professorial lecture. Griswold, a journalist and a poet, paid close attention to a community in southwestern Pennsylvania over the course of seven years to convey its confounding experience with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that injects water and chemicals deep into the ground in order to shake loose deposits of natural gas. Considering the animus and hardship described in this book, the title sounds almost cruelly ironic, but it comes from the land itself. Amity and Prosperity are the names of two towns in Pennsylvania’s Washington County, where “the history of energy extraction is etched into Appalachian hollows.” The people there are no strangers to industry, including its boons and disasters. Coal, steel and now natural gas: To suggest that the county’s residents have simply been bamboozled by greedy industry sounds to them like the bleating of condescending elites and, for a number of locals, simply untrue. Some families have suffered while others have thrived. What Griswold depicts is a community, like the earth, cracked open.

Griswold arrived on the scene in 2011, a little more than halfway through the decade of the gas rush, when technological advances made fracking cheaper — economically speaking, that is. The ecological costs have proved to be quite dear.

Natural gas may burn more cleanly than oil or coal, but flushing it out requires forcing enormous amounts of water and chemicals into the earth with pressure approaching a shotgun blast. (Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have had fracking-related earthquakes as a result.) Then there’s the grim matter of the waste left over, what one candid extraction employee calls “demon water.” Griswold describes sludge in a waste pond going septic, releasing an unbearable stench “like an infected wound.”

“It was the kind of fugitive scent that made Stacey feel paranoid and alone,” Griswold writes of Stacey Haney, a nurse who leased her mineral rights to Range Resources in 2008. Haney thought the money would help her and her two children, whom she was raising on her own after a divorce. Stacey tries to counter the odor with spritzings of Febreze and a steady supply of potpourri. Parts of “Amity and Prosperity” read as intimately as a novel, though its insidious, slow-motion ordeal is all too real.

Griswold follows the Haneys over the years as their hope turns to worry and grinding disillusionment. Stacey’s problems begin with her old farmhouse, which acquires a blanket of dust and a cracked foundation after Range’s trucks start barreling up the dirt road nearby. Then the health problems kick in. Watery eyes and runny noses eventually give way to headaches and mouth ulcers. Stacey, in a loving relationship but anxious about cancer risks and fetal deformities, gets her tubes tied. “After the gas wells,” Stacey says, “we just don’t heal right.”

Most debilitated is her teenage son, Harley, who suffers from stomach ailments so overwhelming that he becomes a “listless stick figure” and can no longer attend his regular school. A urine test reveals arsenic poisoning. Stacey’s hydrologist says her well water is contaminated, while Range’s experts say otherwise. The company tells Harley his wood shop class — which he barely attended — might be to blame.

Griswold chronicles all of this with care, as the Haneys and their neighbors, the Voyles family, endure mysterious ailments as well as the brutal demise of their farm animals to sudden seizures and horrific bleeding. But the graphic parts of this book are in some ways the least of it. Even more crushing are the humiliations of litigation, as Stacey and her neighbors try to get help from Pennsylvania’s financially decimated Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP gives them such a runaround that they have to petition the courts to force the state agency to do its job.

Range doesn’t look good in Griswold’s account, but at least the avarice of a corporation bent on profit maximization isn’t all that surprising; what’s more astonishing is the failure of the state government to regulate the company properly, and to protect the people under its watch. Here, Griswold’s multiple years of reporting convey the slow crawl of accumulating frustrations that eroded trust in government bit by bit. All the while, victims like the Haneys fret over the hassle and cost of obtaining clean water, as Range hands out mini water bottles at the county fair.

The community itself provides little by way of support or solace, as the widening gap between the haves and have-nots means that the winners have all the more to lose. Unsympathetic townspeople doubt Stacey’s claims of chemical exposure and blame Harley’s illness on his mother’s divorce.

Griswold delineates the hardened resentments forged in Stacey’s county, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. “Resource extraction has long fed a sense of marginalization and disgust,” Griswold writes, “both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.” Fracking only deepened these fissures and introduced some more. Where coal-miner and steelworker unions used to provide some sense of solidarity, the ascendancy of mineral rights — privately owned and unequally distributed — have pitted neighbors against one another.

And it’s here that the social effects of fracking start to look truly pernicious, as the environmental fallout and the influx of money splinter a community, thereby dismantling its willingness and ability to act in a way that transcends the cynicism of individual interests. Stacey just wants others to see what she sees, and to feel seen herself. More than punishment, she hopes for a day when those she holds responsible for her plight will get a lesson in empathy, even if it has to come the hard way. “If I had my choice, I wouldn’t send them to jail,” she says. “I’d send them to my house to live.”

Publication Notes:

'Amity and Prosperity:

One Family and the Fracturing of America'

By Eliza Griswold

318 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.