Portrait of a Contemporary Sacrifice Zone
“If I had a choice, I'd leave. Everything is poisonous here. If it weren't for my grandkids, I would leave.” Janice Blanock, collaborator in FrackLand Tours and Community Activist.
PA 2019 Fracked Gas Production. FracTracker
900 feet thick and 419 million years old, the Marcellus Shale formation provides 104,000 square miles of natural gas reserves, limestone, and pyrite. Because of this abundance of natural resources not all to far from the surface, it has launched Pennsylvania into an economic boom of fracking, mining, and drilling.
Introduction and Methods
In his book, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States, Steve Lerner argues the "Sacrifice Zone" designation to extend to a broad array of fence line communities or hot spots of chemical pollution where residents live immediately adjacent to heavy polluting industries. While the government concedes that the production of nuclear energy has caused a small number of Americans to make a health and economic sacrifice for their national security, they ignore a much larger group of low- income and minority Americans exposed to chemical pollution whose health is sacrificed twice as much.
After reading Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold, and becoming increasingly educated regarding the prevalence of both Oil and Gas wells and the number of activists taking a stand against the growing severity of emotional and physical sacrifice in Southwestern PA, our Capstone group decided this would be an insightful and accessible region in which to not only study the culture of contemporary Sacrifice Zones in our region, but attempt to raise awareness, and produce helpful research as well, that cements an understanding of their plight.
By employing methods of participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, graphic photographic visualization, and a plethora of primary and secondary literary sources, we intend for our page to not only help paint and visualize a portrait of how fracking has affected life, culture, and social relations in Southwestern, Pa, but also offer up what we find as the most efficacious means to organize, assist, and understand activists and residents in a social world that often resists environmentalists and closes its door to outsiders.
First photo: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2021.
Bottom: Lauren Bowlin, 2022.
Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. 2020.
Our Areas of Study and Articles Detailing Research
Olympus Energy - Deception and Obstruction
To be a resident in this region is to have legitimate concerns discredited, downplayed, or even manipulated. Often times, real community risks, such as light pollution, sound pollution, or general destruction of scenery and secure public spaces, are treated as arbitrary side effects rather than immense and social loss. We used the story of Olympus Energy to focus on this issue and gauge public reactions, and reception, when their concerns are ignored. The following story is from West Deer, Allegheny county, Pennsylvania.
Olympus Energy had proposed to drill two well pads on the border of Allegheny county. Residents opposed this, and held public hearings to determine the fate of the energy comany's construction.
Olympus Energy's two proposed wells, Dionysus and Leto, are, and would have been drilled through flooded mines near Deer Lakes Park
Olympus Energy had placed Dionysus too close to a pre-existing building (<650 ft away), argued they had not violated any regulations
When discussing the effects of the wells in a public hearing, civil engineer Joe Blickenderfer, argued that the well at hand did not produce blinding lights, though had never even seen the well with the lights on, or been to the premises at night
Final decision on Leto is expected by June 30th, 2022
Environmental Activists Tim and Jo Resciniti, a lovely couple we had the pleasure of interviewing to better understand Olympus Energy's encroachment on community life. Photo Courtesy from the Rescinitis.
Barb Jarmoska. 2010. Photo courtsey of FracTracker Alliance.
Accessing Risk and Perceptions of Culpability in a Culture of "Not Directly Linked"
Luke Blanock of Canonsburg, PA, was only 19 when he passed away from an extremely rare form of Pediatric bone cancer, Ewing Sarcoma. A teammate, son, brother, and husband, the loss of such a kind, resilient, and deeply loved person as Luke on its own is indescribably devastating, the pain unequivocal. This loss, however, is not a closed chapter to read back upon in the Blanock Family, but rather is still being written by the unanswered questions, a burning sense of injustice, and frightening implications as to what could have catalyzed his condition beyond fate or simple chance.
Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. 2020.
Frackturing a Community
Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2020.
Greenwashing and Corporate Public Relations Many communities that have experienced the effects of extractive industries have also faced the corporate public relations practice of greenwashing. This practice ignores detrimental health and environmental risk by communicating safe practices, and offerings of reassurance through company based “science.” For communities such as Amity and Prosperity that have faced a history of extractive industry, the promises last until the companies leave but seem to never truly be fulfilled. The framing of safe practices for the environment and community health are very prevalent on many pro-fracking or corporate websites, however they are only supported by company based scientists, and go in circles.
Many company based studies also focus on a singular facet of drilling rather than the entire process, making for an incomplete understanding of contamination (Matz & Renfrew, 2014). By focusing on integrating themselves into the community, ensuring safety and economic growth, these companies are able to persist in these small communities by greenwashing the information regarding fracking processes, substances used, and overall potential negative effects from the drilling.
Employing these strategies has also led to questioning opposition as a point to call for national, state or community pride often based on the notion of self-sufficiency. Though this tactic isn’t directly greenwashing, and is more so slanderous to opposing groups, it is directly inspired through the events of greenwashing through the corporate/public relationship. From here they are also able to infiltrate communities to better paint themselves as a part of the community rather than an outside entity, which in turn is implied about activists and others that are demanding answers regarding the lack of information transparency and company promises of improvement.
Upon arriving in these small towns like Amity and Prosperity, these extracting companies worth millions or billions of dollars began buying and building schools and baseball fields and naming them after their company. The “boom” that these companies promise in the local economy does not always pan out the way the citizens imagine it to. With the amount of company propaganda around in these towns, it is very easy for people to become numb to the fact of what these extracting companies are doing. When youth baseball teams are sponsored by EQT, it is hard for these communities to refuse such large amounts of charity and donations.
Communities put so much trust into these extracting companies that they become unaware of the contaminating effects to their water systems. From the beginning of the process, the companies integrate themselves more and more into these communities to gain trust. Citizens are reluctant to question if what the companies are doing is good or bad because they are already "one" with the community. Once companies are embedded is when communities are most vulnerable. Some companies now become able to legally trespass on property with the right documents (Belack, 2014). They also freely greenwash certain aspects of the fracking process and data analytics.
The “bust” of these communities comes pretty much immediately after the companies are done. While talking to an employee at the Novelty Shoppe in Amity, PA. I asked him how fast it was when Range Resources decided to pack up and move to a different location. He said one day you’d see about thirty 18-wheeler trucks driving up and down the road then one day they just vanished. He continued on about how his daily customers, who were employees of Range Resources, just stopped coming in for lunch. He also noted that everything became a lot cleaner as well. The roads didn't have as much dirt, dust, and trash on them anymore. Before the “bust,” everyday around 3:30 p.m. the main strip of Amity would be extremely busy. Now he said they’d be surprised if they saw ten cars driving by in an hour. From these encounters, we can see the boom and bust cycle depends on how well the company is doing financially, regardless of community well-being.
Using Comics, Art, and Language as Cultural Devices
Mike Keefe, 2011.
Above: Political cartoon by Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Gazette, 2015.
Right: Painting titled, Fracking, by David W, Coffin. 2012.
Understanding the rhetoric used by residents in these regions is crucial to understanding the cultural ethos and perception of themes such as contamination, economic security, and trust in greater public institutions. In our interviews with activists, words such as "poison", "malicious", and "neglect" stick out as key indicators of the growing resentment towards Oil and Gas companies, as well as their environmental impact viewed both insidiously and purposefully.
A Drive Through Prosperity: A Storybook of Poverty, Isolation, - and Hope.
The morning of March 26, 2022, was cold and overcast. The afternoon seemed to be promising to be the same and the urge to stay inside in the warmth was becoming stronger. But that was not going to be an option today. Today our group was going to make the trip to Amity and Prosperity in Western Pa. Our main goal was to talk to people about their experiences with fracking. Our research was inspired by Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity and we also wanted to see where the events of the books took place. We left town around 3:00 P.M. and separated ourselves into two cars. The drive was about 45 minutes and it began to snow on the way down. We arrived in Amity and parked next to the post office. It was 4:28 P.M. on a Saturday. The town was set on a hill. The entirety of the town was along a single street probably not even a mile long. We walked around the strip, it was snowing on us and there was no wind. We were the only ones out and walking; it made the experience a bit eerie. It felt like we were walking through a ghost town. The lights were off in many of the buildings, some seemed closed down, and there was no sign of life for the first thirty minutes there. There were many historic and old buildings, including the historical association that was built out of a log cabin from the 1800s. There were also some really nice houses in town. New houses that looked like they were built in the last ten years. From looking at the scale of the town it’s clear that this is the type of place where everyone knows everyone. You couldn’t walk down the street or drive down the road without seeing someone you knew. As we walked back to the car, a single truck passed by and the driver waved at us. They seemed friendly. The only other person we saw in Amity was a man directing another truck in the parking lot of the post office. He did not seem like he wanted to chat.
We began to make our way to Prosperity, which according to our GPS was about ten minutes away. On our way there, we saw a possible well pad in the corner of our eye. We immediately looked for a place where we could turn around and check it out. The Kearney Well Pad is located about 2 minutes outside of Amity and ten outside of Prosperity. It lies within the Amwell Township of Washington county. It was also about a mile away from a boy scout camp. The pad was built by Range Resources and there was a "no trespassing" sign on its open gate. It appeared to be either water treatment or waste treatment as part of the fracking setup. There was also a sign on the entrance that read: “In case of emergency meeting point”.
After the detour to the pad, we headed to Prosperity. In terms of size and setup, the town wasn’t too different than Amity. It was a bit bigger by a few houses and there were some newer structures. There were more people out and more cars on the road. We stopped at Jim Stop, Shop Mall where they were advertising live bait and cotton candy among other things. The boys were sent in first and after a few minutes, the rest of the team went in. Brodie was already having a conversation with the man at the counter and he told us that he lived in Prosperity his whole life. He read the Griswold book and knew all the people in the book. We paid for snacks and regrouped by the cars. From there we drove down to Rinky Dinks Road House. A local joint by the side of the road was built in the style of an old western saloon. It had a large sign of a cowboy and a lasso with the name of the restaurant on it. It was snowing harder than before as we walked in the dimly lit bar. It had an overwhelming smell of tobacco as soon as we walked in. There was a sizable group of men at the bar. There was a makeshift red room next to the restrooms. We seated ourselves in the dining area adjoining the bar. It had better lighting than the bar and there were only two other groups there when we began our dinner. The dining room was a large space that had several tables, a couple of pool tables, and a stage for live music. There was going to be a performance from Cross Creek Band later that night so the band was already set up. The waitress came and took our order. She brought us water in the form of plastic water bottles (we were expecting tap water). There seemed to be two waitresses in the whole restaurant. It took about two hours for our food to get there. In the meantime, we talked over what we saw, Lauren continued to take pictures, and Wes, Mononita, and Brodie decided to check out the bar to see if anyone wished to talk. They did not. People were staring at us the whole time we were there and the atmosphere had a tense undertone. It was very clear we were outsiders. After our food we paid and made our way out. It was another 45 minutes until we got home and it was snowing heavily as we left.
All photos above taken by Lauren Bowlin, 2022.
Have you been affected by Fracking? Here are a few helpful resources.
Our Story • The Reasons Why Us - Pediatric Cancer and Connections to The Environment Research and Awareness Foundation
FracTracker | Insights Empowering Action - Research connections and Fracking database to help support personal projects and help organize against Fracking
Home - Center for Coalfield Justice - Organization for advocacy, education, and environmental activism in Southwestern PA
Concerned Residents of West Deer, PA (CROWD) - Collective of West Deer Township residents committed to the health and safety of our neighborhoods, roads, businesses, schools, parks, and open spaces