Futility and Rapacity: On Eliza Griswold’s "Amity and Prosperity"
Eliza Griswold | Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America | Farrar, Straus, and Giroux | 2018 | 318 Pages
I spent almost a decade living in Pittsburgh, and during that time, I both did and did not know about the situation unfolding right outside of its city limits, by which I mean the situation known as fracking. It is not just the process of hydraulic fracturing itself but the entire situation created by it—the stuff that even well-meaning people can’t help but not know—that forms the core of Eliza Griswold’s investigations in Amity and Prosperity. Those who think they know what they talk about when they talk about fracking have a lot to learn from Griswold’s painstaking and compassionate research, the timeframe for which begins in 2011 and extends up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In particular, they have a lot to learn about how rural populations, after being manipulated by corporations and then abandoned by the governmental agencies whose job it is to protect them, contributed to that outcome.
For instance, I didn’t know that, back in 2011, when the band that I played in was hired to perform at an outdoor festival in Wheeling, West Virginia, that I was being paid to join the machinery of assuagement that was working to sell fracking to rural people. That spring, we’d played a benefit concert to raise funds for the victims of the tornadoes that had swept through Joplin, Missouri. As a group, we saw our “sound” as falling somewhere between rockabilly and bluegrass, and this involved quite a lot of singing about mines. Our group included two grandchildren of coal miners, and we wrote songs about black lung, mine explosions, workers’ rights, and organizing in deference to that fact. At that previous concert, a man approached us, offering us $600 to play at an upcoming festival in Wheeling. Whereas, occasionally, our anti-mining messages would strike the wrong political chord with an audience member, this guy was into them. When we arrived at the gig one evening in June, we were escorted onto a massive stage that might have been more at home at the likes of Coachella. Colored lights and thirty-foot tall speaker stacks flanked us on each side. And at our backs hung massive banners advertising the festival sponsor: Range Resources.
“Range” figures prominently in Amity and Prosperity. This was the company that successfully fracked the first well in Washington County, Pennsylvania in 2004, setting off the fracking “boom” that was to overtake and decimate the lives of many of its inhabitants in the years to follow. Griswold’s book opens at the 2010 Washington County Fair, during the last “good” year for the Haney family, who are her real-life protagonists. There, amidst the blue-ribbon squashes and the 4H presentations, a specter looms in the form of men in blue polo shirts, “gas executives [who] had recently arrived in the region with the shale gas boom.” This is where Range Resources enters Griswold’s story, which is a story of how fracking was sold as a great idea to a population that had suffered generations of abuse at the hands of other extractive industries and their bad ideas.
Stacey Haney, a single mother of two, signs a lease that grants Range access to the shale underneath her farmland, and that’s where the trouble starts. Haney does this in the hopes of “block[ing] the coal companies from undermining her farm,” referring to a process by which neighboring farms had previously had their water contaminated by so-called “long wall” coal mining. The choice, as Haney saw it at the time, was between a familiar evil, mining, and a new, under-researched and crucially untested hope, fracking. It was the same choice that my band had been hired to unwittingly present to audience members at a festival taking place not far from Haney’s home in Amity, PA, located just miles from the West Virginia border. Griswold’s book narrates the story of how Range Resources and other companies preyed off of Appalachia’s traumatic memories of coal in order to instill a new, but functionally similar, nightmare for the inhabitants of that region.
In Amity and Prosperity, Stacey Haney’s story spins outward, encompassing a cast of characters who varyingly suffer the effects of fracking. The epicenter of these stories, though, remains a mystery for most of the book, owing to the fact that it’s not located on Haney’s property, or on that of any of Griswold’s interview subjects. Contamination from a leaking storage site built to contain fracking fluid winds up poisoning the lives and livelihoods of Stacey and her neighbors, including their children, pets, and livestock. What these people have in common at the start of Griswold’s investigation is location: they all live downhill from the storage site, which is located on another neighbor’s property. As such, Griswold’s book also tells the story of crisis management with regards to private property rights in America, as one neighbor’s decision becomes another neighbor’s catastrophe. When the contamination we all know is coming is first suspected in Stacey Haney’s drinking water, Range Resources rushes to the rescue with an alternative water source. But water in rural Washington County—like elsewhere in select parts of the United States—is the private responsibility of the individual landowner, and when no contamination is found to be occurring on Haney’s property specifically, the alternative water supply is cut off. Meanwhile, tests performed by Haney, who is a nurse, on both herself and her children indicate that the water isn’t the only problem: fracking chemicals were in the air. The Haney family is forced, in the end, to abandon their home and their rural way of life—not as a result of their choices, but their neighbors’.
From the Haneys’ and their neighbors’ mutual miseries, Griswold effects a Law and Order-style switch, shifting to focus on the legal case known as Haney v. Range. She follows this legal battle, which stars a married lawyer couple devoted to the project of securing justice for Haney, to its ultimately disappointing end. Griswold forces her reader to confront a set of heartbreaking, systemic failures, starting with the failure of the American justice system. Thanks to a set of corrupt state laws designed to benefit (and, in some cases, effectively written by) companies like Range Resources, the Haney v. Range case drags on for years. It doesn’t reach its conclusion until January of 2018, just in the nick of time for Griswold and her book.
If there are faults to this book, they result less from errors on Griswold’s part than bureaucratic malfeasance: much of the information that Griswold needed in order to tell this story remains shielded by intellectual property law or sealed off at the behest of court settlements. As a result, the conclusion of the Haney v. Range case, when it eventually comes, only confirms the more maddening aspects of Griswold’s investigation. The exact terms of the settlement are allowed, like so much else in Amity and Prosperity, to remain a secret. (Recently, however, in June of 2019, a computer error revealed the terms of the secret settlement, shedding some light on the details that Griswold was prevented from making public in her book.)
Meanwhile, another set of failures detailed by Griswold offer a direct and underacknowledged connection between the fracking boom and our current political situation. As Griswold describes toward the end of the book, “In Amity, Trump’s antipathy toward the EPA was popular, along with his promise to cut the federal agency’s budget.” Many of Haney’s friends and neighbors, seeing themselves as victims of unresponsive and negligent government operations, welcome both Trump and his plans to dismantle not just the Environmental Protection Agency but the very idea of government, which they equate with bureaucratic failure and malfeasance. As such, Griswold’s book does more than offer an investigative account of fracking in rural Appalachia; it shows how this region, once a hotbed of union organizing and liberal politics, suddenly ran red. It answers the questions that eluded so many journalists on their repeated visits to towns like Amity and Prosperity—towns that supposedly held the key to the secret of Trump’s election. And, in delivering these answers, it becomes less the story of Haney v. Range than of Capitalism v. Democracy, with the latter cast as the ineluctable loser.
Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity was justly awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I say “justly” in this instance not only with regards to the subject matter, but to the depth and doggedness of her work on it. One of Griswold’s more significant achievements lies in her having successfully made fracking a topic of conversation again, long after the word itself had become a regular and, perhaps, all-too-comfortable part of everyone’s vocabulary. The effects of fracking will live with this country and with rural Appalachia for generations to come, just as the effects from coal have not subsided in the wake of that industry’s decline. Fracking’s story is right now being written upon the land and the bodies of the people who inhabit it, and it is far from over.