Poet and reporter Eliza Griswold’s nonfiction book, “Amity and Prosperity,” takes readers to rural Washington County, where Stacey Haney, a nurse, is living less than half a mile from fracking waste and drill cutting pits on a neighbor’s property.
The Haney family has come down with mysterious illnesses, and they end up leaving the farm that had belonged to her great grandfather. As Stacey Haney tries to figure out why her family is sick, she’s also dealing with two mortgages and mounting doctors bills. Then her son is diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. Animals on their farm get sick and die.
Griswold spent over seven years talking to neighbors, gas executives and the Department of Environmental Protection, among others, as Haney–and eventually her lawyers–try to get the drilling company to take responsibility for the air and water pollution near her home.
Kara Holsopple sat down with Griswold recently to learn more about the book and the Haney family.
Kara Holsopple: A theme that keeps cropping up in the book is this notion of the rights of the individual and the rights of the whole or the commonwealth…
Eliza Griswold: This whole idea of Pennsylvania as a commonwealth…what are commonly held assets? Well, our water and our air. And Pennsylvanians have such a long history of wrestling with this issue–longer, I’d argue, than any other Americans. And that really dates back to the timber industry, and a group of citizens rising up to say, you know, look at what timber cost us. And they weren’t saying, ‘let’s keep all of these resources pristine.’ They said, ‘no, we need to figure out prudent use for future generations.’
That long history of conservationism has led people to…a sophisticated understanding of what the commons are because they see them being affected all day. If you’ve watched a coal company go bankrupt and abandon your town, and you’ve watched the slag heaps left behind that nobody can afford to remove, and you’ve seen both the social and economic impacts all at once—then you have a pretty good understanding of [the] costs.
KH: As much as your book is the story of a single mother speaking out for her home and her family’s health, it’s an indictment of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. What are some of the details that you uncovered about how the DEP regulated and dealt with the oil and gas industry and people like Stacey Haney?
EG: The harshest indictment I’ve seen of the failures comes from its own inspector general report. To be fair, the DEP is woefully underfunded and understaffed.
KH: The DEP was seen as very chummy with the oil and gas industry, and Stacey Haney and her neighbors felt that they were keeping information back from them.
EG: One of them actually witnessed a DEP employee asking an oil and gas employee if there were any jobs available, while they were on the site to regulate. And that is one of the sad realities of public poverty. When the DEP inspectors are underfunded, and they are not paid very much, we’re supposed to ask them to stay in those jobs because it’s noble? So, as much as it’s an individual problem within the DEP, it’s also an indication of what happens when we don’t maintain the systems designed to protect all of us.
KH: One of Stacey Haney’s lawyers compared what’s happened to the water in Amity from fracking to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. Only in this case, in Pennsylvania, the federal government hasn’t stepped in. What’s the difference?
EG: That the people in Amity are on private water, not public. And there are only three of them, on the side of a hill, as opposed to hundreds. That’s the difference right there. It’s easy for an outsider to come in and say, “Oh, you know people’s wells should be protected. They should be regulated.” But a lot of people don’t want their wells regulated. So this kind of complexity in this small instance really reveals some of the larger tensions facing America today.
A lot of the people who support fracking are also farmers, and they are regulated to crazy levels. Every time a pig needs a shot, they have to have a vet come out, and that’s going to cost a hundred dollars. They can’t drive a tractor into a stream because there are regulations. At the same time, the oil and gas industry can come out and wreak havoc. There are plenty of regulations to stop them. But there are cases in which regulations fail. And this is one of those cases.
KH: Stacey Haney, towards the end of the book, says she’s done with the federal government. But she and her neighbors have been looking for EPA and for the federal government to help them.
EG: They began as skeptical of the federal government. One of the romantic notions of where that skepticism comes from, of course, is the long, long history with the Whiskey Rebellion, and the opposition, historically, dating back centuries, of people in rural western Pennsylvania who have seen the federal government come in and been rapacious at best—and actually taken up arms against them. So there’s a long history of, ‘what exactly does the federal government want from us?’ And Stacey doesn’t want government in her life. Yet because of this experience, she thought maybe the federal government will step in and protect us. And yes, the federal government also failed them.
KH: There is some resolution for Stacey Haney and her family at the end of the book, which takes us up to just this past January. The book is dedicated to Stacey Haney’s children, Harley and Paige. Why is a dedicated to them, and what do you hope this book will give them?
EG: I watched Paige and Harley grow up over the course of this book, and face some pretty difficult circumstances and major disappointments. When I first met Harley, he wanted to be a veterinarian. Over the years, he gave up his dream of going to college, of being a veterinarian, of going into the military. Dream after dream, really, became failure in his life. And there are lots of complicated reasons why that happened. . .[it’s] not just his own illness or problems related to living next door to the oil and gas site. But that played a major role in who he has become today.
I wanted to give them the book because they deserve something. This is a very meticulously researched, and deeply reported account of what happened to them, and why it happened. And hopefully when they’re much older, and it’s sitting on the shelf, and they’re looking to understand how they got where they are, they can pull it down and find some solace here.
KH: You write very lyrically about the history of this region: the frontier days, the Whiskey Rebellion, the coal jobs and the bust. And that’s the story, the character of this region. How should this period in its history be remembered?
EG: That to me is so important. Not the writing per se, but the larger context of this story. Because as much as it’s a legal thriller in the foreground, what the book is really about is what it has meant to a collection of rural Americans to pay for the energy appetites of urban Americans, and how that experience has deepened the divide between rural and urban.
The rest of us really need to pay more attention to what’s happening. We need to know what happens when we turn on our lights. We need to know who’s paying those costs. And we don’t want to know. Coming back to New York, where I live, nobody wants to talk about fracking. Why? Because we’re implicated. And I just want to be very clear, there are people within this book who have had a very positive experience with both the company and the extractive process themselves. And they also deserve to be heard and spoken to. So it’s complicated.