Amity and Prosperity

I was delighted to learn that the book “Amity and Prosperity” by Eliza Griswold has just received the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

The “Amity” and “Prosperity” of the title are two small towns in the heart of Marcellus fracking territory, southwest of Pittsburgh. That area was one of the first to be heavily fracked, and it was done with almost no thought about the consequences for the local residents.

This excellent book details the 7-year fight of one woman, Stacey Haney, to try to save her family and her farm from serious pollution problems due to a nearby fracking waste pond. The Haney farm was downhill and downwind from the leaky storage pond, and the fracking liquids from it polluted both their well and the air they breathed. They and their neighbors were sickened, and many of their animals died. The book is the story of Haney’s attempts to first understand what was happening and then, when it was clear that it was leakage from the fracking pond that was causing illness and dead animals, to seek assistance.

Haney initially tried to work with the fracking company, Range Resources, then with local authorities, then with the Pennsylvania DEP, and then finally (when everything else failed) with the EPA, the FBI, and the legal system. She hit roadblocks at every step, and those who actually tried to help her worked for agencies that had been deliberately hamstrung and underfunded and weren’t up to the regulatory task. She finally found a small law firm that was willing to help her out.

There are many parallels in her story to the story of people in our area who are fighting the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system). Although Sunoco is barely mentioned in this book (only once that I noticed) and the highly-volatile NGLs carried by the Dragonpipe are not mentioned at all, the story still feels familiar.

The villain here is Range Resources, the biggest drilling company in the Marcellus shale (as well as the primary customer for Mariner East 1). Like Sunoco, Range has had a habit of lying to the locals. For example, for years Range made the claim that it disclosed all the chemicals it used in fracking. Later, in court, this turned out not to be true. It made claims that its fracking wastes were monitored and contained, when in fact they were leaking into the local groundwater and the monitoring was a sham.

Just as Sunoco does, Range frequently used legal settlements with those who made complaints to secure their silence in exchange for a sizable payment.

At the same time, Range was touting the benefits of fracking for the local economy, handing out water bottles and seat cushions for the bleachers at the county fair, supporting local politicians, and trying in many other ways to present the image of a good neighbor.

The lessons are familiar, but nevertheless critical: don’t sign anything you don’t understand, have your water pre-tested (and, in our area, get the structural soundness of your house checked ahead of drilling), don’t believe what the company says without evidence, and above all, don’t assume that any government agency will protect you. They won’t.

One small but significant episode occurs late in the book: the small law firm that Haney worked with was able to win a zoning-related case on behalf of several local townships, based on the Environmental Rights Amendment (Title 1, Section 27 of the PA constitution). It forced Range to change its fracking practices. It wasn’t Haney’s case, and it didn’t result in a financial award, but it did show that the amendment (popularized as “the Green Amendment”) can have legal teeth. (At some point, I will be doing a blog post about the Green Amendment.)

The book is very well written, and you get to know Stacey Haney and her family and neighbors as they try to understand and cope with the fracking problems that have damaged their health and destroyed their farms. And author Eliza Griswold is also skilled at sensitively describing the usual family problems that the Haneys are dealing with, including marital relationships and the parent-child issues involving Haney’s teenage children. She also highlights the growing rifts between those who are benefiting from drilling (land owners with drill pads) and those (like the Haneys) who are suffering the consequences, tearing apart what had once been a close-knit, mutually-supportive community.

Griswold made many trips from her home in New York City out to Washington County to visit the Haneys, and it shows in her fine reporting.

Highly recommended.

Many of the local libraries have copies of the book, but you’ll probably find there’s a sizeable waiting list, now that it has become so well known.