Mine Control

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America BY Eliza Griswold. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.

The cover of Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America

The Marcellus Shale is a 575-mile-long stretch of sedimentary rock, most of it deep underground, that settled millions of years ago over the imprint of an ancient sea. It lies beneath much of Appalachia, extending up through western and northern Pennsylvania and a section of western New York. Trapped within the rock are vast stores of natural gas, and because it’s so close to existing gas pipelines and the cities of the East Coast, the Marcellus Shale has long been, for energy companies, an attractive prize—“like discovering an underground deposit of beer directly beneath Yankee Stadium,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote. Yet for many years no one managed to devise an affordable way to suck the gas out of the shale.

That changed two decades ago, after a Texas company invented a cost-effective method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and set off a surge of domestic oil and gas production. In Pennsylvania coal country, many residents saw fracking as a positive development, less invasive and less dirty than coal mining, the wealth more widely shared. Land men knocked on doors and offered to lease mineral rights, presenting photos of the unobtrusive-looking wells they would pay for permission to drill. What was not to like?

Stacey Haney, the central figure in Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity, believed that by signing a mineral lease in 2008 with Range Resources, the leading driller in the Marcellus, she’d have money to pay her taxes and might be able to afford the new barn she wanted. A nurse and a single mom, she’d lived all her life near the town of Amity, Pennsylvania, and now had an eight-acre farm with a menagerie of animals—rabbits, goats, pigs, and a lustful donkey, who kept escaping to chase after a mare at a neighboring farm. She identified herself as a “Hoopy,” the local term for hillbilly, even as she struggled to fashion a middle-class life for herself and her two kids, and she took pride in her resourcefulness, in changing her own tires and chopping her own firewood.

After she and her neighbors signed leases, up to 250 trucks started barreling by the house each day, on their way to and from a nearby property where the company had dug a waste pond. The traffic kicked up so much dirt that a layer of grime settled over Haney’s porch, and everyone in the household started coughing, even the goats. Still, her initial instinct was to tough it out. She attempted to mask noxious odors with potpourri and Febreze. Then some of her animals, as well as some belonging to her neighbors, started dying, and her son, Harley, came down with a debilitating illness that stumped doctors and caused him to miss so much of the seventh grade that he had to be enrolled in a program for the homebound. A doctor found that he had elevated levels of arsenic in his blood. Although tests of the family’s well water were inconclusive, Harley’s symptoms improved after Range Resources agreed to truck in bottled water for them to use. Then again, he didn’t recover fully, and Haney wondered whether there was something else in the water, or something in the air, that might be making her son sick.

Groundwater that has been contaminated with natural gas following fracking, Pennsylvania, 2015. © Scott Goldsmith.
Groundwater that has been contaminated with natural gas following fracking, Pennsylvania, 2015. © Scott Goldsmith.

She complained to Range Resources and to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, but she was reluctant to speak out publicly, holding out hope that the company would treat her better if she kept quiet. Her own deference was hardly the biggest impediment to determining what had gone wrong. In her compelling and empathetic book Amity and Prosperity,Griswold expertly untangles the thicket of obstruction Haney faced. For the most part, the people of Amity tended to favor fracking, not only because of the money received from leases, but because the industry brought jobs to the area. (“People were so desperate for health insurance they were willing to take jobs that made others sick,” Haney would say.) Then there was the cautionary tale of Prosperity, a nearby community that had practically been turned into a ghost town by invasive coal-seam mining.

Range Resources was responsible for leaks and spills at the waste-pond site, but it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that an energy company would fail to police itself or to look out for the people in its path. The more dispiriting lapses are those of the state and federal government representatives who accommodated the fracking industry and/or sat on their thumbs. The indulgence of fracking began with federal law—the coal industry had already won exemptions from certain laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, and in 2005 Vice President Dick Cheney helped extend those exemptions to fracking, in what became known as the “Halliburton loophole.” Then there was the neglect from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, which, already underfunded, saw its budget cut by 27 percent in 2008. A few years later, the secretary of the DEP announced, “At the end of the day, my job is to make sure gas is done and gas is done right.” (Critics gave the agency nicknames such as “Don’t Expect Protection” and “Department of Energy Production.”) And because Haney’s water came from a private well, it wasn’t subject to the same regulations as a public water supply would be.

A motley series of state and federal investigators came to visit Haney, and though some of them seemed to want to help, in the end they all kicked the can down the road. “Excuse me for saying this . . . but we have been shit on by our government, both state and federal,” an exasperated Haney eventually told one of them. In the meantime, it had become clear enough to her that she needed to move, and she tried to sock away whatever she could of her Range Resources royalty payments to save up for a new house, a daunting prospect given that she had little hope of selling her toxic farm. She and the kids lived here and there, Harley staying with Haney’s boyfriend while she and her daughter, Paige, slept in an unheated camper. The farm became, in Haney’s words, “a two-hundred-and-eighty-thousand dollar cat mansion” and was eventually ransacked by thieves who took all the appliances and ripped the plumbing and the bathroom fixtures out of the walls. They even took the tire swing.

The writer Rachel Carson grew up about a hundred miles from Amity, on a farm in the middle of coal and steel country. Her 1962 classic, Silent Spring, which demonstrated how synthetic chemicals like DDT could enter the food chain, helped inspire the modern environmental movement and the formation of the EPA, while in that same era Pennsylvanians passed an amendment to their constitution guaranteeing “the right to clean air and pure water”—even though, in practice, the state’s 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment did little to rein in coal and steel. And so forty years later, the question remains: Does Stacey Haney—or any of us—have a right to clean air and water?

We tend to think so, and to believe there are laws to back this up, but in Haney’s case the legal loopholes and the weaknesses of the enforcement agencies seemed to render this “right” meaningless, if it ever meant anything to begin with. And there’s a vicious circle by which the failures of the government engender antigovernment sentiment, which in turn lends political support to further undermining of the laws and agencies that are supposed to protect us. Beth Voyles, Haney’s neighbor, who seemed to be suffering from chemical burns as a result of emissions from the fracking site—though no one could prove the connection—believed the EPA had abandoned her community, and she voted for Donald Trump in part because she liked his idea of slashing the agency’s budget. (She later regretted the vote.)

Haney’s story is depressingly familiar: A person, typically a working-class person, falls victim to industrial pollution and becomes a reluctant activist and/or plaintiff in a battle against a corporate Goliath. The fact that this narrative has become a genre doesn’t make the individual cases less important, and Haney’s struggles point to the dangers posed by a new runaway technology, specifically to how fracking might endanger the water supply, and to what Griswold calls “the human cost of American energy.”

The latter two-thirds of the book unfolds as a legal drama. Haney, Voyles, and their neighbor Buzz Kiskadden were represented by John and Kendra Smith, a husband and wife who weren’t career plaintiffs’ attorneys but nonetheless decided to take on Range Resources and its subcontractors, the DEP, and a new state law, known as Act 13, seen by its critics as a gift to the drilling industry. (Among other provisions, it undermined a town’s authority to say where drilling could or couldn’t take place.) Kendra’s SUV would fill with boxes of documents that she pored over at her kids’ soccer games and at home. In them she discovered records showing the fracking-waste pond had leaked, which was known to the company and to the DEP but never disclosed to her clients.

John Smith won a significant victory in 2013, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to strike down parts of Act 13, based in part on the Environmental Rights Amendment—the first time it had carried weight in court. But the individual lawsuits of Haney and her neighbors dragged on and ultimately didn’t fare as well. Kiskadden lost outright: Despite finding that Range Resources had a “reprehensible” record of leaks and spills, the judge couldn’t rule out the possibility that a junkyard on Kiskadden’s own property was to blame for the poisoning of his water well. Kiskadden, indigent and suffering from leukemia, had trouble getting out of bed afterward, while his mother saw the ruin of their water as a sign of the end-times. “I just hope we’re raptured out of here,” she said.

Haney and Voyles ultimately settled with Range Resources, for amounts that left them feeling defeated. Haney would have to take what consolation she could in the fact that her battle had become an inspiration to antifracking activists in other states. She agreed to sell her farm to the Voyles’ daughter, who had a plan to bypass the poisoned well water by setting up a rainwater-collection system. Haney warned her not to let any kids in the house, made unlivable by contamination and mold. She herself had been diagnosed with PTSD. Harley, who had once hoped to become a veterinarian, took a job installing residential gas pipelines.

Karen Olsson is the author of the novel All the Houses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).