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(Review by a veteran radical journalist and contributor to CounterPunch.
At the end of the review, it states that she is working on a book about
encounters with America in a time of crackup. Can't wait for that.)
NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 5, 2018
What Happened When Fracking Came to Town
By JoAnn Wypijewski
AMITY AND PROSPERITY
One Family and the Fracturing of America
By Eliza Griswold
318 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
At Page 51 of “Amity and Prosperity,” Eliza Griswold’s saga of
fracking’s impact on the town of Amity in southwest Pennsylvania, I made
a note in the margin: “Why People Hate Government.” By then her
protagonist’s son, Harley Haney, had suffered mouth ulcers, severe
abdominal pain, nausea, swollen lymph nodes and dizziness. Wilting in a
recliner, he had missed a year and a half of middle school. His dog had
died. The neighbors’ dogs had died. The tap water was running black and
smelled foul. The air reeked. A quarter-mile up the hill, workers in
Hazmat suits had applied 819 pounds of a carcinogen to contain a
bacterial outbreak at a waste pond for the gas wells near his home.
Harley’s mother, Stacey Haney, suffered headaches, rashes and fatigue.
His younger sister, Paige, had stomachaches and nosebleeds. The
neighbors were sick, too, and one, Beth Voyles, kept a dead puppy in her
freezer as potential evidence. She had been complaining to the state
Department of Environmental Protection for months. An agent there said
that the hydrogen sulfide in the local air was naturally occurring. A
representative of the company that owned the gas wells, Range Resources,
told Stacey to boil her water before drinking it. Harley’s condition was
finally diagnosed: arsenic poisoning. Staying home sick from school had
only made him worse. Toxins accrue.
It’s at this point that Griswold writes: “Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat,
sliced the D.E.P.’s budget of $217,515,000 by 27 percent, one of the
biggest cuts in its history. The governor also shaved 19 percent from
the $113,369,000 budget of the Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources” and “started leasing oil and gas rights on public land. In
three separate sales, the state made $413 million by leasing 138,866
acres. This marked the beginning of one of the largest public sell-offs
in Pennsylvania’s recent history.”
Like the governor, like their neighbors sitting atop Appalachia’s
gas-rich Marcellus Shale, like the federal government and many thousands
of other people across rural America, Stacey and Beth had leased gas
rights on their land. Something so ordinary must be safe, the two women
figured. And the money the drillers offered was tantalizing. That’s part
of the tragedy. However grand their dreams (farmers’ hopes that gas
royalties would make them millionaires), or modest (Stacey’s wish for
$8,000 to build a barn), or abstract (consumers’ faith in clean, cheap
natural gas), almost everyone wanted to believe in the fantastic deal.
Griswold aims to count the costs.
Hydraulic fracturing, as she demonstrates, entails as much violence as
the name implies. Putting aside the burden on roads, tranquillity and
social relations, to frack a gas well means taking roughly four million
gallons of water, poisoning it with chemicals, some of them proprietary
secrets, and forcing this brew, together with some three million pounds
of clay pellets or silica sand, into a well that extends horizontally a
mile or two through shale. The shale cracks. The results: gas, fractured
bedrock, depleted freshwater supplies and toxic waste. Now fortified
with bacteria, heavy metals and additional toxins, the fracking fluid
that returns to the surface presents a problem with no good solution.
Some of it stays underground, where it combines with methane and can
migrate into aquifers, streams and private wells. Imagine this process
multiplied. Stacey’s eight acres lay amid five wells; her county,
Washington, has 1,146. The state of Pennsylvania has 7,788. The United
States has more than 300,000.
Politicians still call it clean. In the early 2000s, Congress exempted
fracking from provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and
the Safe Drinking Water Act. Amid the wreckage of the financial crisis,
President Obama touted it as a win for the economy and the environment.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton pushed it on the world. After
leaving office, in 2011, Governor Rendell became a paid consultant to a
private-equity firm with investments in fracking. His former deputy
chief of staff, another deputy, his D.E.P. chief and other erstwhile
regulators enlisted in the corporate ranks of oil and gas.
The fracking boom muted more imaginative approaches to the common
welfare, and suppressed honest appraisals of costs. In 2012, Obama’s
E.P.A. announced that the brown, putrid water issuing from people’s taps
in Dimock, Pa., posed no danger. In 2016, a Centers for Disease Control
agency, using the same samples, declared Dimock’s water a health hazard.
Every E.P.A. agent who knocked on Stacey Haney’s door promising aid
disappeared into the mist; one eventually became environmental director
of Chesapeake Energy. Lately, as landowners’ royalties have shrunk and
the financial press warns that the boom looks like a bubble, systemic
dials seem locked on “drill.” The current governor of Pennsylvania, Tom
Wolf, a Democrat, recently requested more D.E.P. inspectors, not to
address thousands of frack-related citizen complaints but to speed up
permits for new drilling. D.E.P., some people say, stands for
“Department of Energy Production” or “Don’t Expect Protection.”
Griswold reports so much government neglect, deception and collusion —
here augmented with data from the Public Accountability Initiative,
NPR’s StateImpact project and the nonprofit investigative site Public
Herald — that as I read I abbreviated my marginal notes to “WPHG.” By
the time her story reaches 2016, it’s plain that people who have lost
their water, their home’s value, their farm animals and pets, their
health and hope for relief would not be making conventional electoral
choices. Beth Voyles voted for Donald Trump; Stacey Haney, for Jill Stein.
The broad political costs of fracking are not expressly Griswold’s
subject, however. Her impressive research notwithstanding, “Amity and
Prosperity” is at heart a David and Goliath story fit for the movies. It
has everything but a happy ending: a bucolic setting concealing fortune
and danger; poor but proud locals who’ve endured sequential boom-bust
cycles of resource extraction (Prosperity is a neighboring town ravaged
by long-wall mining); tough, reluctant victim-heroes; grisly scenes of
animal die-off; and courtroom drama, as a tenacious husband-wife legal
team takes on the industry and the state, wins one important case but
can’t outlast its adversaries’ moneyed obstructionism. Stacey and Beth
settle out of court and submit to a gag order. Harley gets healthier
once the family abandons its home, but, with no illusions left, he
finishes high school on the internet and takes a job laying gas
pipeline. Advantage, Goliath.
Mood carries the story. We know Harley by his long alienation. We know
the lawyer Kendra Smith by her mastery of an alphabet of toxins, her
slog through documents and her ire as Range Resources refuses to
disclose all its proprietary chemicals. We know Stacey by her dedication
— to her kids and three jobs, to whatever tradition she can salvage and
fight she can muster. Mostly we know her by her fury and her fears. The
book’s prologue reproduces a raging note she posted on her forsaken
farmhouse after thieves stripped it of metal. Through most of the action
she strives to be polite: Don’t make anyone mad, she reasons, it’ll only
get worse for you.
It gets worse anyway. Range Resources inexorably appropriates Amity’s
allegiances and civic life. The county fair devolves into occupied
territory, an echo of Griswold’s previous experience reporting in Asia
and Africa. From so vital a perspective, one longs for at least a
snapshot of national scale — the West pocked with frackpads, the almost
daily earthquakes in Oklahoma from waste injection, the tens of
thousands of people who’ve had no say in drilling near their homes, the
workers risking damage, the question everywhere: Who will defend the water?
Griswold ascribes ideas to Stacey about “the American dream” and the
need to “tough it out,” about the “price one paid for progress” and
failing “through no fault of her own.” Maybe Stacey used those phrases
(she is not directly quoted doing so), but she should have been spared
banality. She fell for a con. Her own night terrors best convey her
sense of responsibility and fracture: images of driving in reverse, of
her children trapped or falling, of her inability to control anything —
dreams from which she awoke “caught between gasping for breath and
fearing the air.”
Until land is laid waste nearby, people don’t think much about
sacrificed populations or the historic function of government rooted in
colonization and corporatism. Thieving, or regulating theft, is a simple
term for it. People who’ve lost their water to fracking, like those who
live in impoverished, toxified communities everywhere, like the people
of Flint, are on a continuum that began with the indigenous peoples, the
enslaved Africans and the “waste people” (“refuse,” as Benjamin Franklin
called poor Pennsylvanians), who were forced off the land, into bondage
or penury at America’s dawn. The nature of oppression changes, but the
levers of power that have helped some to prosper while allowing many to
sink are hardened in place, and the persistent question, implicit in
this valuable, discomforting book, is Who will unstick them?
JoAnn Wypijewski is working on a book about encounters with America in a
time of crackup.
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