Weekend long read: Fractured communities – the seven-year story of what happened when fracking came to town

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It started with a dead puppy.

This prompted nurse and single mother Stacey Haney to investigate whether her family was being poisoned by a shale gas site near her home in rural Pennsylvania.

For seven years, journalist Eliza Griswold followed Stacey Haney’s battle with the gas company, Range Resources, in a unique study of the impacts of the US shale boom.

Her book, Amity and Prosperity, won Griswold this year’s Pulizter Prize for general nonfiction. Last week, she talked to journalists in London about the winners and losers of fracking and how the industry split families and neighbours.

Losers

The book, named after two Pennsylvania towns, begins in 2010 with the death of the puppy after drinking from a puddle left by a truck spraying down dust on the road.

The puppy had cheered up Stacey’s teenage son, Harley, during a long undiagnosed stomach illness. He had missed a year of school and weighed no more than the goat he planned to show at the local county fair.

He was later found to have arsenic poisoning. Other members of the family experienced headaches, dizziness and nose bleeds. Tests confirmed all their bodies had traces of the gas-related chemicals arsenic, benzene and toluene.

The Haney’s farm in Amity was downhill from a Range Resources shale gas well and waste pond. At times, 250 diesel-powered trucks passed their home each day. The pond, a quarter of a mile away, was used to store waste from wells across the area. It turned out it was leaking.

During the course of the book, the Haney’s well water became contaminated, their prized livestock died and they had to abandon the farm that had belonged to Stacey’s great grandfather.

Stacey Haney and two neighbours took legal action against Range Resources claiming the drilling and fracking operation caused their health problems. In 2018, the case was settled out of court

The case also raised issues that led to changes in state law and a series of federal investigations.

Eliza Griswold said:

“Stacey and her kids lost their land and a good part of their lives waging a battle against the oil and gas industry. … They are among those paying the human cost of American energy”.

Responding to the argument that UK fracking regulation is different, Griswold said:

“What first made Harley sick was 250 trucks a day passing his house and the particulate matter of the diesel and the dust being kicked up compromised his immune system.

“This was an industrial site a few hundred feet from someone’s house. It can’t be done.”

190802 Eliza Griswold

Eliza Griswold (left) at the Frontline Club in London with interviewer, Steve Coll

Winners

The book also describes how some people in Amity thrived on fracking.

Many landowners, including Stacey Haney and her neighbours, sold mineral rights to Range Resources.

Griswold said:

“Some of her neighbours, particularly larger landowners, made a lot of money – hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on this process.”

For some, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cash in.

“When environmental groups came out and said you can’t possibly do this, people who lived on this land said ‘how dare you come out here and tell me that I shouldn’t sign this lease, when I have the first chance in history to make some money’.”

One family, Ray Day and his brother John, were astounded when their first check arrived, Griswold reports. Ray said:

“It was more money than I made in the first twenty years of teaching combined.”

Griswold met Ray Day over the seven years she worked on the book. She said:

“Ray would tell you that fracking had allowed his mum to die on their farm at home because he could afford to build a bathroom onto the first floor of his century-old farm house because she couldn’t manage the stairs anymore.

“He would tell you he can keep cattle on his farm and that he would probably have had to give up the farm if it weren’t for the money from fracking.

“He might not tell you that his fracked pond like 13 others in the county leaked, because he didn’t think that this was a problem. He is one of those people who thought Range Resources is more responsible than the government … and Range told him what the problem was and they were with him the next day and he had not had a single sick cow.”

There were also financial benefits for the wider area. Griswold said Range Resources put $1m into the Washington County Fair and more than $3 million in impact fees in Amity. The company also spent nearly $3.3 million on roads and infrastructure and helped raise $10 million for local activities. It was the largest donor to hunger-related causes in the county.

Divisions

But the contrast between those who won and those who lost from fracking led to divisions in Amity, Griswold said.

Stacey Haney had a small piece of land so her mineral royalties were also small. The more land you have, the more pro-fracking you are because the more money you’re making, Griswold said.

“This has definitely divided communities and turned neighbours against one another, really for the first time in a very long time.

“The more money that flowed into town, the deeper the divide grew between those getting large checks and those left out of the rush.”

One industry executive told her the people who complained were the ones not making any money:

“It was always the small landowners who had trouble, like Stacey, never the larger ones, like Ray Day. It all boiled down to dollars.”

But a former Range Resources employee said:

“We’re going to give you a new road, but it’s going to cost you this forty-five-year friendship and you can’t pave over that.”

Stacey Haney began to feel ostracised as her legal case against the gas company progressed.

“This whole situation has changed every aspect of my life.”

She said she felt betrayed by families who didn’t believe her because her evidence went against their personal finances. Her son, Harley, said he no longer felt he was part of the community he’d been raised in.

Truths

The splits in the community reported in Amity and Prosperity help to explain why people who visit Pennsylvania from the UK return with very different impressions of the fracking industry.

Jo and Steve White and the Rev Graham Cray from Ryedale in North Yorkshire reported experiences similar to those of Stacey Haney.

Their local MP, Kevin Hollinrake, concluded from his visit that most people were positive about fracking. Ineos Shale took local newspaper journalists to Pennsylvania as part of its case for fracking in the east midlands.

Asked where supporters would go to find the positive side of fracking, Griswold said:

“They could be going to somebody within a half mile from Stacey. They could be going to Ray Day who I spent seven years with. He is entirely pro-fracking. That’s how divided these communities are. And that’s how unlikely you are to get the full story from anybody.”

Griswold concluded:

“It was nearly impossible to think how one small patch of earth could contain such disparate stories.”

Trust

Amity and Prosperity is also a story about a feeling of betrayal in the ability of state and federal authorities to protect people from the effects of industrial pollution.

Lawyers for Stacey Haney and her neighbours alleged that the gas company and independent testing laboratories colluded to hide results about water quality from the families and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

They discovered that the DEP was aware of contamination on the farm which hosted the fracking site near Stacey Haney’s home. But the agency never issued a notice of violation so there was no record of what happened and neighbours were not informed. The DEP also knew in 2010 about a tear in the liner of a pit for drill cuttings.

A company that carried out the frack near Stacey Haney’s home told Congress it didn’t use diesel in frack fluid. But lawyers analysed the data sheets and found that it had.

The DEP tested Stacey Haney’s water for 24 different metals but it reported results for only eight. It also admitted making mistakes in the calculations on air quality.

A state regulator warned Range Resources not to pump freshwater and soap into the ground below the waste pond before the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the site. Even though the company was told this could force contamination towards the families’ water wells, the operation went ahead.

In 2012, Pennsylvania introduced Act 13, new legislation on oil and gas developments. Before sections were ruled unconstitutional, this gave the state the right to allow shale gas companies to drill where they wanted, overriding the rights of town authorities. It also allowed gas companies not to disclose problems on their sites to neighbouring landowners. Lawyers later successfully argued that aspects of Act 13 breached an amendment in the Pennsylvania’s constitution that guaranteed citizens the right to clean air and pure water.

A nationwide report by the EPA found evidence that fracking had contributed to drinking water contamination in all stages of the process.

In the well water of three families in Amity, the EPA found there was fuels, arsenic, 2-butoxyethanol, iron and manganese. But the EPA said there had been no tests of this water before drilling so it was not possible to show where the contamination came from.

The EPA said the pollution was bad enough that the families should not drink the water. But it would not link the problems to drilling or put concerns in writing.

John Smith, one of the lawyers for the families, said in the past everyone had assumed that the DEP and EPA were doing their jobs. “They weren’t”, he said.

One woman, whose water was contaminated, told Griswold:

“I can’t understand how we had papers proving what was in our water, and we still lost.”

Towards the end of the story, Beth Voyles, Stacey Haney’s neighbour whose puppy died, told Griswold:

“I don’t believe any government official from the DA’s [District Attorney] office to DEP to EPA and FBI to the attorney general has planned on doing anything to help us in any way on the protection of us being US citizens with rights and dignity.”

Stacey Haney told Griswold what she would do to the people who had poisoned her water:

“If I had my choice, I wouldn’t send them to jail. I’d send them to my house to live.”

  • Amity and Prosperity, by Eliza Griswold, is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This content was originally published here.

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