With all eyes on Pennsylvania this election season as progressive Democrats square off with Donald Trump-endorsed Republicans in races for governor and the U.S. Senate, the issue of fracking is far from dominating debate.
The Republicans, like their patron, the former president, can’t get enough of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in which water and chemicals are injected into cracks in the Marcellus Shale to force out massive quantities of natural gas, while the Democrats walk a fine line between jobs and the environment and say as little about fracking as they can get away with.
Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in natural gas production.
But for voters interested in understanding the state’s fracking boom, there is no more telling source on either the environmental costs of fracking, or the nuanced politics of natural gas extraction than Eliza Griswold’s 2018 book, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.”
In awarding “Amity and Prosperity” the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the Pulitzer Board’s citation called the book “a classic American story, grippingly told, of an Appalachian family struggling to retain its middle class status in the shadow of destruction wreaked by corporate fracking.”
Griswold, whose previous book, “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam,” won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize, spent seven years reporting on the story of Stacey Haney, a single mother in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
Haney would reluctantly come to allege in a civil lawsuit that a fracker had sickened her and her two children, polluted her water, destroyed her farm and poisoned her neighbors’ farm animals.
“Five years into my reporting, just over 60 percent of voters in Washington County cast their ballots for Donald Trump,” Griswold writes in the book of the 2016 election. “Reporters flooded rural America to profile the Trump voter, an enterprise that risked reducing sophisticated points of view to sound bites and missing the larger story of a complex American landscape. This is the story of those Americans who’ve wrestled with the price their communities have long paid so the rest of us can plug in our phones.”
Last week, I interviewed Griswold about what she discovered in following the lives of Haney and her children and reporting on litigation that spanned five years, produced thousands of pages of records and resulted in a settlement that was far from a Hollywood ending.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Shribman: You’ve written a remarkable book about a very important phenomenon and a very important moment in American cultural, political and economic history, particularly important for the state in which I live, Pennsylvania, and for the country we live in right now. I was struck, even before I opened the book, about the title, Amity and Prosperity, before I learned those are the names of two communities. There’s something poignant about the fact that those communities are named Amity and Prosperity.
Griswold: There certainly is. When I first met Stacey at a meeting at the Morgantown, West Virginia airport, I didn’t quite know where she lived until I went out to the farm and learned that the town was Amity. But she doesn’t really come from Amity, she comes from Prosperity. It is pretty moving, especially in communities that have been so riven by neither amity nor prosperity due largely to the presence of extractive industry.
Shribman: And you follow this for seven years, and you write in the beginning of the book that for seven years, these people “allowed me to follow their family’s intimate challenges—the loss of animals, the nights spent on the bathroom floor, and the travails of a sick kid who doesn’t want to leave his basement room. They are among those paying the human cost of American energy.” Did your views change, or harden or soften, toward fracking or toward this whole phenomenon?
Griswold: I don’t know if my views changed. Certainly I came in aware that people who came from other places would wag their fingers at locals and say fracking is so bad, it’s bad in the abstract. I was aware that it was a political football. I was aware that [this story] obviously had a lot of the same fossil fuel players, refashioning themselves as “green” in a carbon-based economy. But I was watching very closely alongside people who were not on one political side of this fight or the other, but were trying to learn about what fracking really was and what it entailed. And not just the families themselves, but their attorneys, who were pretty well versed in industrial hygiene, [and] began to drill down—unfortunate metaphor—on how fracking worked. But the problems begin with something as simple as truck traffic. If you put 200 diesel trucks a day with particulate matter on a dirt road 35 feet from an 11-year-old kid, you’re going to impact that kid’s health.
Shribman: You write that Stacey couldn’t believe how much dust the trucks kicked up and how the dirt grimy with diesel settled on the glass hummingbird feeder on the wraparound porch that she filled with sugar water.
Griswold: Exactly. So what I hope I brought to a reader, and certainly was part of my own learning, was that by building any industrial site next to somebody’s house in rural America, you’re changing the character of the place and you’re impacting peoples’ health.
Shribman: I covered the Love Canal in the late 1970s. The victims there were working families. Is there a class element to environmental crises?
Griswold: There absolutely is. Even as recently as a decade ago, the phrase “environmental justice” was still a new one. And here there’s a class element. We see all over the United States that there’s a race element to who gets left out where industrial sites are deliberately placed and who suffers the impacts of them. Working people are screwed on several levels. Not only do they face exposure at a much higher rate, they’re also dependent on the jobs these industries provide. So they’re forced to make complex calculations all the time.
Shribman: Stacey got involved in fracking for two true-blue American values: to make some money and to serve her country by contributing to energy independence. Has her patriotism been rewarded?
Griswold: Both senses have proved a fallacy. She’s still in debt even after the settlement she received. And she certainly doesn’t feel any sort of loyalty to our country. She feels she’s been screwed over by an America that promised one thing and delivered quite another.
Shribman: Let me just read a passage here from page 32. “They’d made trips to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh and the ER at Washington Hospital, where she worked. [Her son] Harley was tested for appendicitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cat scratch fever (after one of the Haneys’ three cats, Cheyenne, scratched his lip), Rocky Mountain spotted fever, mononucleosis, swine flu. All came back negative.” When did she start to connect the dots and how accurate were those connections?
Griswold: She began to know that it was really the drill site next door that was probably the culprit to these illnesses.
Shribman: First there was the dust. Then came sludge and black water. So things got worse, right?
Griswold: Yeah, things got worse.
Shribman: And in all of this, there was a huge irony that for the first time the people of Amity stood to make money from the mineral wealth beneath their corn and their wheat fields.
Griswold: A farmer in southwestern Pennsylvania can tell you the risk/ reward ratio of industrial coal mining versus signing with an oil and gas company. So, it’s complicated and it has to be treated with a lot of respect because [these] people do know what they’re talking about. They’re not just patsies for an industry.
Shribman: This misunderstanding goes to reporters as well. You say that reporters assumed that these people were being somehow duped by shadowy forces.
Griswold: A lot of people who were signing these leases felt that what they were in fact fighting was the hypocrisy of the liberal elite who didn’t want to know where their energy came from. They just wanted to flick on the lights and they weren’t used to paying the cost.
Shribman: You can’t listen to this conversation without thinking that there are overtones of the Trump movement here.
Griswold: It’s certainly part of the massive communication gap between rural and urban in Pennsylvania that is a microcosm of the larger divide, the idea that the government has screwed [these people] over worse than any corporation. That’s certainly true for many small farmers who feel that regulation has driven them out of business. There’s a long, long history here, especially in Pennsylvania, about liberal elites in the East.
Shribman: At Love Canal, as here, it seemed as if government had a stake in this not being a problem.
Griswold: There are many people like me, who feel, how bad can it really be? Doesn’t regulation really mitigate the problems related to fracking? The total regulatory failure related to fracking has to do with the fact that frackers and oil and gas companies set their own parameters for regulation. And that’s pretty common. For me it was a huge learning curve about the structural failure of environmental regulation when it comes to oil and gas.
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Shribman: Any heroes in this story besides of course, the courage of the victims, and the legal team that worked so hard?
Griswold: I really hope that people leave the book with more empathy for those involved in all aspects of it.
Shribman: I was struck by the irony of Stacey and others being paid by the very people who were making them sick and who and against whom they were seeking legal action.
Griswold: They still hang on to those oil and gas rights. But it’s also that they read the statements and say, oh my gosh, I get this little check from the gas underneath my house. And what’s being deducted from the cost of advertising. So the billboard put up against me on the interstate highway saying my claims are nonsense—am I paying for that? It’s Kafkaesque and I hope a reader takes away from this that the levels of extraction involved in the fossil fuel industry goes so far beyond oil and gas and coal. They just really gut communities and gut individuals in a very particular way that I don’t know that we fully understand.
Shribman: Well, the lure of fracking is really captured in this passage: “Any honest assessment of the natural gas boom had to concede its benefits: enough natural gas lay beneath American soil to meet the nation’s electricity needs for decades. Meanwhile, the use of new extraction techniques in the oil industry, mainly in the Midwest and Southwest, promised the end of reliance on foreign oil within less than 20 years.” Boy, that sounds appealing.
Griswold: We’re facing another fracking boom. The pressures of the Russian action in Ukraine, as well as the disruptions of the pandemic have led to a situation where it’s profitable to frack once again. So these companies are all flooding back to Southwestern Pennsylvania. So I think ultimately we’re talking about individuals and communities making decisions, and that does happen in Pennsylvania, and that is a good model for the rest of the country.
Shribman: Because every conversation in the United States has to involve Donald Trump one way or the other, Donald Trump is popular despite promises to cut the EPA—and maybe in part because he wants to cut the EPA. Can you explain this seeming contradiction?
Griswold: For a lot [of people] in Amity and Prosperity, they feel regulations are a government Ponzi scheme to extract money from small farmers. The idea of dismantling regulatory bodies is very attractive to people who feel that they’ve been at the receiving end of injustice from the government.
Shribman: Well, let’s end by having you tell us the lessons of this book.
Griswold: The lessons are that regulation isn’t gonna save you. The lessons are that no extractive company is working in your interest. We don’t need a bridge fuel to get us from oil and coal to renewables. The market is already showing us that it favors direct movement to renewables right away.
David Shribman served as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on American political culture as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe. He now writes a nationally syndicated column, contributes a separate column to the Globe and Mail in Canada, and teaches American politics at both McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy and Carnegie Mellon University.