My hometown is now the subject of Eliza Griswold’s new book, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America. The place she depicts is caught in an uneasy dance between industry and agriculture, by turns shabby and bucolic, conservative and insular, equally influenced by its proximity to Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Some places are tidy; others have old Pepsi machines on the porches.
We lived there because in the early 1970s, my mom got a job teaching art at a small nearby college, and she and my dad decided to buy and fix up the stone house, an Amity landmark. They both had long hair and had been to college; they liked books and jazz and PBS, and they didn’t go to church.
The place where I grew up, but never quite fit in, went through a significant historical shift in the last decade as the natural gas boom laid down a web of heavy industry over the farmland of my formative years. As a center of the business, Washington County — which includes Amity — now hosts more frack wells than any other county in the state: 1,146 of them, which is one-and-a-third for each of its hilly, green square miles.
One of these was drilled in 2012 a few hundred yards from where my dad lives. He designed his house with windows that framed the choicest views. Now the crest of the near hilltop has been amputated, making a flat place for a well to sit.
Based on years of immersive reporting, Griswold’s expertly constructed book follows the legal battle that ensued when a single frack site began to affect three neighboring families. Her heroes are the Haneys: Stacey, a nurse and single mom, and her two kids, Harley and Paige. When we meet Harley, he’s a 14-year-old hobbled by a mysterious ailment, a stomach complaint bad enough to have kept him out of school for most of seventh grade.
By the end of the book, his mother’s dogged legal fight against Range Resources, the gas company whose facilities have poisoned the Haneys’ water and air, has reached its conclusion, and nearly eight years have passed during which the family has barely skirted homelessness and struggled to regain their health.
It’s a sickening story, and Griswold — the kind of reporter who can convince a subject to let her reveal the message inside a Valentine card, and who notices what color somebody’s refrigerator is — painstakingly builds the narrative amid its historical and social context.
Stacey Haney could not be a more perfect protagonist for Griswold’s narrative. The daughter of a laid-off steelworker father and a housekeeper mother, she strives to offer her own children a middle-class lifestyle. Yet she holds onto a thread that connects her to the older way of life in Amity, the agrarian way that binds people to the land; she wants her kids to grasp that thread too, through raising livestock and hunting.
Her grit and hard work may have allowed her to succeed in her goals if she hadn’t lived atop the Marcellus Shale, which harbors an ocean of natural gas, the largest source in the United States. Her burdens come to include not only the everyday ones shared by single mothers everywhere, but also a host of degrading circumstances caused by a frack site uphill from her farmhouse. She must endure watching her children be deposed by industry lawyers, living in a camper in her parents’ driveway, delivering flyers door-to-door to advertise that she’s looking for a home.
The Haneys are far from the only family to suffer fracking-related pollution; more than 4,000 Pennsylvanians have formally complained to the DEP about tainted drinking water. In a nearby county, the state Department of Environmental Protection has also reported a link between frack sites and minor earthquakes.
It’s impossible, as a reader, not to empathize with Stacey, as Griswold herself clearly does. Yet some of the Haneys’ neighbors and even relatives viewed her with suspicion.
For example, one of her cousins was making money from the gas boom, and his son worked for Range Resources. As for Stacey’s story of sick kids and dying animals, he doubted it was really true. In Griswold’s words, “[H]e just thought it sounded extreme.”
For me, reading Griswold’s book has the temporary immersive interest of any well-told story, but that interest is mixed with the heaviness of permanent firsthand knowledge. My heart jumps at all the familiar places, creeks, and roads, and the people who I know, remember, were friends of my brothers, or taught in my school district.
But I’m reading the book from another state, literally and figuratively. I haven’t lived in Amity since 1995. But when Griswold describes one resident, she exposes the essential divides that I remember.
[Jason] Clark bristled at environmentalists and reporters who assumed they understood how corporations were taking advantage of rural Americans. The idea that people who lived on the front lines of Frackistan were somehow being duped by the shadowy forces of industry made him chuckle in anger. […] And the problem wasn’t just the coastal elite, it was urban people everywhere. “People who live in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia are bottom-feeders who don’t want to know where their meat or their energy comes from,” he told me.
I went to high school with Jason Clark, and his words ring a deep bell for me — the mistrust of outsiders, the stubborn we-don’t-need-your-pity independence. But my life has carried me inexorably away from that viewpoint.
We’ve all become more aware of the United States’s cultural divides — the “fracturing” of Griswold’s title — in the last few years. Now that I live in this other world, I can hear both the toughness of Clark’s words and the blind spots behind them, too.
The first time I noticed a gas well near my mother’s house — around 2007 — I was aghast. “How could someone soil their own nest like that?” I asked. All I could see at that moment was the despoiled hillside, the noise and light pollution, the risks to the groundwater: an industrial blight on a formerly beautiful farm.
I didn’t understand until later that the royalties a landowner can earn by signing a lease with a gas company were, for many southwestern Pennsylvanians, life-changing. My dad pointed out to me a number of big new barns being built in the cattle pastures and cornfields. People were catching a break from the economic straits they’d always labored under: working jobs in town to be able to hold on to family land, jobs whose limits were often defined by their own lack of education and the regional history of industrial decline. As I was growing up in Amity, the withdrawal and collapse of the steel and coal industries was one of the givens of life. Their absence was a presence. It was on everyone’s tongue; it was a master narrative about life and work and fortunes. It manifested in ruined corners of the landscape, in abandoned towns and buildings, in hollowed-out downtowns.
You might think that Pennsylvanians would know better than to invite another in this long line of extractive industries, which includes the oil boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1800s. But here, where the Rust Belt meets Appalachia, fracking has successfully insinuated itself by offering not only jobs — which coal and steel also did — but real wealth. And it has come down to individual landowners, sitting at tables across from gas company representatives, signing papers that can significantly lift their personal fortunes.
My dad has a story about running into someone he knew in the grocery store, who told him the gas-royalty checks arriving in his mailbox every month were “so big he didn’t know what to do with them.” There are plenty of more modest stories too, about people who could finally get health insurance or buy, like Jason Clark, better pigs for breeding stock. When the environmental health of an entire region comes down to many individual economic decisions, maybe it’s inevitable that the environment will lose.
That’s especially true because refusing to sign a lease does little or nothing to stop fracking. My dad signed, although the wellpad is actually on his neighbor’s land; had he not signed, he would simply have forgone the money to be made from a well that would be built regardless, bringing with it noise and health risks. Also, nothing would have stopped the operators from drilling horizontally to remove the gas from under his house.
Stacey Haney, too, signed a lease with Range. One farm at a time, one family at a time, fracking has conquered the land. Washington County was punctured by 209 new wells in 2017 alone, and pipelines to connect them now crisscross the hills under broad stripes of clear-cut land. One might argue that people could refuse to sign as a moral stance, a kind of boycott. But anyone making that argument — which, in essence, is a request that already poor people martyr themselves for the sake of the common good — would likely be viewed as an out-of-touch elitist, a privileged meddler.
Fracking is where loving Amity becomes akin to loving a self-destructive addict. It’s grieved me to come home and see this dark machinery dotting the landscape of my childhood, the ground itself shoved aside to make way. Not only through my dad’s windows, but around the corners of little tar-and-chip roads, on hilltops and in bottomland, loom the incongruous gashes and bawling water trucks and lanky drill rigs. Well sites form a thicket on the map.
My first thought about Griswold, when I learned of the existence of her book, was a fairly standard Amity reaction, namely: “What does that carpetbagger know about my town?” But her relentless, measured narration helped me understand my own blind spots — that sadness over ruined views is a kind of class privilege, the outgrowth of a particular stance toward the land. Rather than working it, I’ve been used to looking at it.
In exactly the same way, it’s a privilege for me to be able to stand back from the culture and economy of my hometown and regard it from a distance. I didn’t know until I left, for example, what a thriving downtown looked like, or that post-industrial decay isn’t universal or inevitable. And I didn’t fully perceive (though I’d always keenly sensed) the local ambivalence toward education, a trait that surely has not helped the region navigate this latest corporate incursion.
Nonetheless, to concede that I couldn’t blame individual landowners for the blight of fracking felt to me like a dead end. If every person who signed a lease had sound personal reasons to do so, then every gas well is none of my business, and no local person can be held responsible for what’s happened to the locality.
In the end, a ruined landscape cannot be a solution. The common wealth of Pennsylvania consists of, and is embodied by, its land. Air and water — and aesthetics too, the joy one takes in the environs — are impossible to individually own. They are shared assets, and therefore shared responsibilities.
For years, even as Stacey Haney was suing Range, the corporation made nice with an annual donation of $100 to her children and other 4-H members. In this calculated gesture, Range role-played the part of good neighbor. And Stacey upheld her own, genuine idea of courtesy when she had her kids write thank-you notes for these gifts, to the company that was, meanwhile, poisoning their home.
It is a tragedy when the old values, based in agrarian stewardship and friendly relations, are made absurd by economic pressure.
Fracking may have lined some local pockets for a time, but history tells us the bust will come. And then Stacey Haney’s kids and all the other young people of Amity will inherit a place whose common wealth, and neighborliness, has been eroded that much more.
Griswold’s brilliant choice is to focus tightly on a small group of residents and let the details of their predicament speak for themselves. Thoroughly reported and tightly paced, Amity and Prosperity is an essential document of the region’s latest go-round with the riches underfoot.
Erika Howsare is a poet and journalist who lives in Virginia and blogs at erikahowsare.com. Her second book, How Is Travel a Folded Form?, was published in August by Saddle Road Press.