Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. $27, 336 pages.
IN 2007, while crossing a Nigerian river atop a steel drum because a nearby bridge had collapsed, Eliza Griswold recalled the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured another 145. If failing infrastructure is a mark of a country struggling with poverty, she thought, maybe it was time for her to return home and examine the United States.
The result is Amity and Prosperity, an engrossing examination of the fracking boom in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. The book follows a handful of families in their collective fight against the oil and gas exploration company Range Resources, which they accuse of poisoning their water and air, but the story’s beating heart is plaintiff Stacey Haney. A single mother of two hoping to remain on her family’s financially troubled farm,
Stacey leases eight acres to Range as a way to fuel that hope. But the family and its animals are soon plagued by unexplained illnesses. Her son Harley is in and out of the hospital, suffering canker sores, intestinal distress, weight loss, arsenic poisoning, and more, forcing the family to finally move off the land and into a camper, abandoning the farmhouse to metal scavengers.
Griswold spent seven years researching and reporting for this book, and the tale touches on many of America’s current ills beyond fracking: massive wealth disparity, the opioid crisis, fierce ideological differences along political lines, and our racial strife (a distant relative of Stacey’s is an imprisoned Ku Klux Klan member). By the book’s end, Harley’s childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian is long dead, and he’s instead installing residential gas pipelines. Though only in his early twenties, he’s as defeated and embittered as someone three times his age. Stacey encourages him to try to put his past illness and Range Resources behind him, but he can’t. “I’ll never move on,” he tells her, “they’ve ruined my life.”
The book can, at times, function as a sort of white paper on fracking. Griswold writes that Range’s subcontractors “pumped a total of 3,343,986 gallons of water and chemicals into the perforated pipe”; those chemicals included “ethylene glycol, a neurotoxin, and elements of BTEX, the shorthand for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene.” That cocktail, along with “4,014,720 pounds of clay pellets,” is blasted “downhole to crack the shale.”
This is all information necessary to fully explain the hazards of fracking and why it has revolutionized fossil fuel extraction. It’s not lost on Griswold that Stacey Haney and others in her community willingly leased their land for the money they hoped it would bring, but that’s the quagmire; fracking is both “a blight on the bucolic” and “the solution to decades of decline.” The underemployment and lack of opportunity in places like Amity, Pennsylvania, make it difficult to ignore the “shiny SUVs of the land men” when they come easing down your road.
With the help of local lawyers, the fight against Range reaches the highest levels of the Pennsylvania courts. This in itself can be seen as a victory — regardless of judicial outcome, at least the Haneys have been heard. As I reached the end of the book, however, I was left with a sinking feeling: Griswold wove together this particular story, which began underground, because it rose up high enough to gain attention. That left me wondering how many other families have quietly faced similar struggles, their stories still buried out there, untold.