What Fracking Has Wrought

A Broken Land

Ecological devastation in the American heartland.


Stacey Haney just wanted a barn. The price, around $9,000, was beyond her means as a registered nurse raising a family: $600 a week for shifts that could last as long as 23 hours. When the mining company Range Resources arrived in her hometown of Amity, Pennsylvania, and told residents that the contemporary equivalent of gold lay beneath their properties, Haney believed that she’d found a solution to her quandary. Amity sits on the Marcellus Shale, a sedimentary-rock formation that stretches about 90,000 square miles and contains natural gas. Like her neighbors, Haney signed what was meant to be a lucrative lease with Range to allow the company to build a fracking-waste pond nearby. Not only could she buy better shelter for her farm animals, but Range agreed to provide her with potable water in case the site affected the quality of her well—a point of pride for Haney, who’d grown up hauling water back to the family home.

Then her animals started to die, and her children became sick. A prize goat gave birth to a kid in three pieces and then died. A neighbor’s beloved boxer puppy died from what seemed to be poison, its insides “crystallized, as if it had drunk antifreeze.” One of Haney’s children, Harley, suffered from mouth ulcers, nosebleeds, and personality changes, and a cut on Haney’s foot refused to heal. Something was clearly wrong—the air stank, and strange liquids leaked from the waste pond—but it was hard to link either the human or animal sickness to environmental contamination. And the burden of proof fell on Haney.

This grim story is at the center of Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity. There are other characters in Griswold’s book, and she expands the focus to include the neighboring town of Prosperity, but Haney’s fight against Range Resources forms the spine of her narrative. A single mother with deep roots in the area, Haney has been forced to become a detective. She tracks her veterinarian bills, her medical expenses, and the family’s lab-test results, and through her travails Griswold documents an ever-widening gap between old fantasies and new realities for many families in western Pennsylvania.

Range promised people like Haney that fracking would create jobs and swell their bank accounts, bringing economic progress to a region that badly needed it. And for some families, those promises came true. But Haney wasn’t so lucky: She never got her barn, and soon enough, she lost her well water, too. Illness eventually drove her family out of their farmhouse, and they briefly took shelter in a camper. In the winter, Griswold writes, they had to be careful: When the weather got very cold, the sleeping family members could stick to the sides of the camper. The Haneys’ old farmhouse didn’t fare well, either. An unoccupied husk, it became easy prey. Where the land attracted a predatory company, the house attracted those left behind by the shale boom; vandals began to gut it for its pipes.

Range Resources severed the family from their home, and from their old understandings of themselves. Haney was a nurse, a mother, a woman from Amity—but by the end of the book, she’s primarily a plaintiff. Haney v. Range Resources became one of three lawsuits filed by Washington County attorneys John and Kendra Smith in 2011 and 2012 over the consequences of fracking in Haney’s western Pennsylvania area. Her suit alleged that Range had knowingly concealed problems with the waste pond near her home. Among the more explosive allegations, the Smiths argued that Range, through the services of a third-party laboratory, had concealed potentially dangerous levels of glycols in the Haneys’ water.

As we come to learn in Amity and Prosperity, Haney was not alone. The Smiths also represented Haney’s closest neighbors, a family named the Voyles, and another neighbor, Buzz Kiskadden, in their suits against the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which allegedly failed to report the extensive contamination. The Smiths and another team of attorneys also filed a fourth lawsuit against the state for its newly passed Oil and Gas Act, which was poised to loosen the zoning restrictions on fracking ponds and allow companies like Range to position them closer to residential areas. The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees all citizens “the right to clean air and pure water,” and the expansion of the extractive industry in western Pennsylvania, the Smiths and their legal team argued, threatened the citizens’ common good. Amity and Prosperity tells the story of how these Pennsylvanians fought to save it. The book also points us to the prospects for a more rooted environmentalism that might help to bridge the gulf between middle-class liberals in urban centers and rural working-class activists.

By reputation, anti-fracking activism is a liberal cause, mostly taken up by middle-class progressives living on the West and East coasts. But fracking has tangible effects on the land and on the people living there, and opposition to the industry has emerged in other parts of the country as well, creating new alliances between middle- and working-class Americans. Today, liberals and environmentalists are not the only groups that oppose fracking; so do many of the working-class people who are supposed to benefit from it. In southern Appalachia and parts of the Shenandoah Valley, residents have organized against construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In Virginia and West Virginia, protesters have occupied trees and various roads to try to block or at least slow construction. In Louisiana, activists have established a camp to protest the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. While all of these campaigns were organized by local activists, each with their own concerns about the effects of the extractive industry’s use of their land, they also capture a broader turn within Republican strongholds toward a politics focused on the commons. “Water is life,” the Mountain Valley Pipeline protestors insist, deliberately invoking the language employed by activists from the Standing Rock Reservation in their demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Louisiana, Native activists are working alongside non-Natives in the effort to block the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

Amity and Prosperity tries to tell many different stories at once, but one of them is about the interplay between the anti-fracking activism that has emerged in an increasingly rightward-leaning county and the tensions that it causes. In 2010, as Haney’s complaints about Range Resources emerged in the public eye, she found herself in an unfamiliar position. Despite her close relationships with people in both Amity and neighboring Prosperity, Haney had become increasingly isolated. Her lease with Range may not have enriched her, but the fracking boom brought jobs to the area and financial benefits to some of her neighbors. Old acquaintances started to avoid her. Some believed that Haney, dissatisfied with the terms of her lease, was “angling for a payday.” Bigger landowners, who profited more from their leases with Range, were loath to believe Haney’s tale of woe. “Her neighbors’ opinions about [her son] Harley’s health often had less to do with the boy’s welfare and more with their positions on fracking,” Griswold writes.

But even as some people aligned themselves with Range against Haney, others began to oppose the company’s activities—and for many of the same reasons she had. For them, what’s at stake is the land and the environment—the commons—needed to sustain collective life. Their problem isn’t with Republicans or Democrats per se so much as with politics in general. Too many politicians are willing to let companies like Range ravage the land, poison the water supply, and despoil what remains of the region’s natural environment.

In this way, Haney and her neighbors’ politicization moves in more than one direction. By dint of their opposition to Range, they questioned not only the energy industry’s presence in the state but also the visions of regional progress that justified it. In one arresting moment in the book, Griswold describes a gas company’s billboard: On it, “a translucent baby” floats, the words engineer? welder? emblazoned over its features.

Their frustration over how the energy industry has come to dominate politics in their state has also led them to grow increasingly disenchanted with both the Democratic and Republican parties. Haney ended up voting for Jill Stein in 2016—not out of a standing commitment to the Green Party or the left, but because she felt that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump represented her interests. While she was certainly in the minority—most of her neighbors supported Trump, by a nearly two-to-one margin—according to Griswold, Haney was one of 16 people in her small township to vote for the Green Party candidate.

Griswold’s book captures another kind of politicization that is also taking place in much of rural America and one that often goes neglected by many books written about its rightward turn: Out of the dislocations and ecological harm caused by industrial extraction, a new expression of environmentalism is gaining popularity among working-class people. The campaigns against the Mountain Valley and Dakota Access pipelines are only a few examples ofan emerging politics that focuses on the commons and what is at risk when extractive industries mine and harm the land.

Partisanship isn’t totally irrelevant in these struggles. Trump embraced fracking early on, and his administration’s platform of deregulation favors the coal and natural-gas industries—which poses a dilemma for some fracking opponents who may otherwise consider themselves conservatives. But the opposition to fracking and gas pipelines has often proved to transcend partisan expectations. In Virginia’s Ninth District, Representative Morgan Griffith, a Tea Party Republican who defeated a 14-term Democratic incumbent in 2010, made clear in the run-up to last year’s elections that he had “legitimate concerns” about what the Mountain Valley Pipeline could do to local water supplies, and many of the Virginia teachers that I interviewed last May said much the same.

Precisely for this reason, this new breed of environmental activism offers the possibility of building new alliances and radicalizing new constituencies for the left. State constitutions may also be on their side. In the suit that the Smiths filed against Range Resources, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that key aspects of the Oil and Gas Act did violate the state’s constitution. “It is not a historical accident that the Pennsylvania Constitution now places citizens’ environmental rights on par with their political rights,” wrote then–Chief Justice Ronald Castille in his decision, singling out Haney’s testimony as a persuasive factor in the case.

Haney’s case was eventually settled—though Range, for its part, insists that it did nothing wrong. But what she and her neighbors have lost is something that can never be recovered. In a postscript to her book, Griswold notes that the Haneys’ farmhouse still stands empty. The Voyles’ daughter wants to buy it, but if she does, she’ll have to haul in her own water, or collect rainwater in a cistern—the very fate that Stacey Haney hoped to avoid for herself.

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