Nightmare Fuel

The fracking of America

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At 3:27 p.m. on April 5, 2010, a coal-dust explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, claiming the lives of twenty-nine men. It was the country’s deadliest coal-mine disaster since 1970 and would lead to a one-year prison sentence for Massey’s then-CEO, Don Blankenship, who was so aggrieved over this injustice that he ran for Senate this year.

I was working in the Washington Post newsroom at the time of the explosion, and I still recall being dismayed to learn that the paper initially decided not to put a Post staffer on the story; instead the Post ran just a short wire report on page A3. (The New York Times had a staff-written article on the front page.) This decision seemed especially lamentable given that the Washington, D.C. area was getting a lot of its electricity from West Virginia coal. The Post’s branding mantra was that it was focused on news “for and about Washington,” which might have served as a surface rationale for downplaying coverage of a mine disaster 333 miles from D.C. But of course, the disaster was “for and about Washington”—those miners had been excavating coal that would power desktops and laptops and tastefully recessed track lighting all across the Beltway.

Then again, the Post editors were hardly alone in failing to draw the connections implicit in our nation’s energy landscape. The United States is blessed with prodigious resources in coal, oil, and natural gas—but the work devoted to their extraction, processing, and refining is often invisible, thanks to the vast geographic and socioeconomic distances separating the metropolitan areas consuming the bulk of our energy supply from its far-flung points of origin. Three years before the Upper Big Branch disaster, I had ventured deep into a Murray Energy coal mine in southern Illinois and had been overwhelmed by the spectacle of men with headlamps and blackened faces tossing hunks of rock on a conveyor belt—work so archaic that it seemed removed from the end user in Chicago or Columbus not only by physical distance but also by a now-vanished epoch in time.

Eliza Griswold’s new book, Amity and Prosperity, is a deeply reported attempt to close these gaps. It is a wrenching dispatch from a corner of the country, southwestern Pennsylvania, that’s been a casualty of our fossil-fuel dependency twice over now. In the nineteenth century, the region, much like present-day West Virginia, was a hub of the coal industry; now, it serves as a major source for natural gas obtainable by new technologies in hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. The process brings with it a whole new set of side effects for the populations caught up in the fracking boom. “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,” Griswold writes. “Some feel that price was worth paying; others don’t.”

That divide in opinion exists within these fracking communities themselves, and not only among the broader population of energy consumers who have much less at stake. One of the main themes in Griswold’s account is that the fracking wars in places like southwestern Pennsylvania have caused a lasting rupture, heightening the atomization and alienation fed by our screens, our economic divide, and our politics. The other principal theme of Amity and Prosperity is Griswold’s indictment of the government officials, very much including those of the Obama-era EPA, charged with regulating the booming new industry. The chief villains of this book are not so much the energy companies—their rapaciousness is assumed—but the people paid by all of us to impose limits, who are utterly failing at that job. Put those two strands together—the breakdown of community and the breakdown of government—and Amity and Prosperity is nothing less than a story of the collapse of the public commonweal in our time.

Put those two strands together—the breakdown of community and the breakdown of government—and Amity and Prosperity is nothing less than a story of the collapse of the public commonweal in our time.

Griswold, who previously authored a book of poems and The Tenth Parallel, a series of reports from the “fault lines” between Islam and Christianity in Africa and Southeast Asia, began spending time in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2011. She homed in on the plight of Stacey Haney, a tenacious nurse and a single mother of son Harley and daughter Paige, who were fourteen and eleven in 2011. Like so many others in Washington County, an alluringly rumpled expanse southwest of Pittsburgh, Stacey had, in 2008, fallen for the pitch from a “land man” from energy giant Range Resources. She exchanged the mineral rights to the gas beneath her eight-acre property in the hamlet of Amity in exchange for checks that were initially as high as $6,000 per month. It was a hard deal to turn down in a region that had benefited so little from the prior coal boom. “They come, show you all these pretty pictures of beautiful land and little well caps,” Stacey said at an anti-fracking gathering after the grim hidden costs of her bargain had overtaken her family. “We asked good questions, but they lie, and now here we are.”

Where Stacey and her family found themselves was in a waking nightmare. Horrible smells began to suffuse their house, wafting out of the water and downslope from the nearby property where Range was doing the actual drilling—smells that the Haneys compared to rotting sewage and that even one Range employee likened to “shitty beef jerky.” Their goat, Boots, and a horse belonging to the daughter of their neighbor, Beth, both died—part of a long line of pets and farm animals in the neighborhood to perish suspiciously.

Most alarming has been the rapid decline of Harley, who as a boy had liked to collect eggs from the coop and shoot groundhogs, but now in his teens began losing weight and grew profoundly listless. Tests have found arsenic in his urine, but Range (whose managers like to kick back at a nearby compound with a golf course, barbecue joint, and cigar shop) insisted that tests of Stacey’s water show nothing alarming. Later, it emerged that Range has not only been doing an appallingly negligent job of containing the toxic wastewater at the uphill site, but has also been withholding and shading lab results. The company did eventually pay to have water delivered to the Haneys, but Harley’s continued deterioration, combined with lesser ailments suffered by Stacey and Paige, prompted Stacey to move them out and buy a camper for them to live in outside her parents’ house. “Our house has become a $280,000 cat mansion,” she told Griswold.

Stacey wasn’t an activist by temperament and was reluctant to be viewed as a threat to the flow of money to people unaccustomed to it—money that was causing a rush on expensive toys like $5,000 portable sawmills. So she appealed quietly to the authorities whom one would expect to address the problem: the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal EPA. But the DEP is profoundly compromised in a state that views fracking as a revenue boon and savior for its post-industrial hinterlands. At one court hearing, Stacey was alarmed to see DEP officials fraternizing with Range employees as if they were on the same team. She placed more hope in the few EPA investigators who showed up—one even carried a gun, which she took as a sign of how serious federal regulators were in approaching the conflict. But the investigator she liked most left to work for another big natural gas company, Chesapeake; the others just faded away, having taken no action. In 2011, Stacey sent an appeal to President Barack Obama: “Please, please help us.” She got no response. Two years later, Obama hailed the fracking boom in his State of the Union address: “We produce more natural gas than ever before—and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it.”

The EPA did let people like Beth and Stacey down, so why shouldn’t they lash out at it?

At last, Stacey hired a dynamo lawyer couple from the Pittsburgh suburbs to sue Range Resources. Meticulous sleuthing by the science-savvy attorney, Kendra, lends some detective-novel appeal to Griswold’s narrative. Kendra discovers key pages missing from DEP binders, dangerous chemicals left out of test results, and implicating e-mails between Range managers and contractors at the drilling site. But this suspense is overshadowed by the pathos of the final break that the lawsuit causes between Stacey and her community—a rupture that’s embodied in the gaunt figure of Harley. He became a walking rebuke to newly prosperous townspeople, and suffered for it. “The truth she told went against their pocketbooks,” Griswold writes of Stacey. She traces the family’s arc through the county fair: where once the children had gamely entered their goats, pigs, and rabbits, now they were up against families using their new riches to spend heavily on their kids’ entries, while Stacey was so strapped that she had to enter Paige’s cornbread without doilies—all but ensuring that she wouldn’t win. One year, Range Resources, whose presence at the fair expanded in tandem with the company’s reach in the region, deigned to buy Harley’s goat. For this honor, he got a certificate along with a royal-blue Range Resources bag filled with with glo-sticks, a hat, and a Slinky.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit ground on. Stacey soon found herself over $200,000 in debt, despite taking on two additional jobs. The abandoned house was invaded by thieves who made off with the woodstove, refrigerator, dishwasher, copper piping, and even her nail polish remover (an ingredient for making meth, which is another recent plague in rural Pennsylvania). Stacey started bringing a .380 Taurus with her on visits to feed the animals, and left a note for the “IGNORANT MOTHERFUCKERS who keep breaking into my house,” informing them that their marauding not only cost $35,000 in damages but forced her to get an additional $5,000 insurance policy, and warning them that the house is contaminated with carcinogens.

The lawsuit ended in early 2018 with a decidedly equivocal outcome for Stacey and her neighbor Beth. But the real climax of the book arguably came in November 2016, when both women cast votes reflecting their political estrangement. Stacey voted for Jill Stein, while Beth voted for Donald Trump—“given her feeling that the federal agency had abandoned them, she cheered the gutting of the EPA.” It is a tribute to Griswold’s reporting that she doesn’t make Beth’s choice seem absurd or otherwise in defiance of her own political self-interest. The EPA did let people like Beth and Stacey down, so why shouldn’t they lash out at it?

This doesn’t mean that Washington County is beyond hope for the Democratic Party—voters there recently gave Democrat Conor Lamb an upset win in a congressional election. But it does mean that the failure of the government to do its job, and the inability of a distant public reliant on the region’s energy output to give a damn about that failure, has created a body of serious consequences. One of them is that Beth got her wish—the EPA is being gutted. Whether that will do her any good is doubtful.

Alec MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica. MacGillis previously spent three years writing for The New Republic, five years as a national reporter for The Washington Post, and five years at the Baltimore Sun. A resident of Baltimore, MacGillis is also the author of The Cynic, a 2014 biography of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

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