Amity and Prosperity, an ethnography written by Eliza Griswold, is an intimate case study of the life and legal battle of Stacey Haney, a single mother of two living in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Having thought her prayers had been answered when Range Resources arrived in her small town, she leased acres of farmland in order to collect royalties while they drilled into the gas-rich earth. Unfortunately, what she instead received was toxicity, contamination, fear, and isolation. Instead of an easy, victimless extraction, this process of hydraulic fracturing, also commonly known as fracking, is where a slurry of chemicals, water, and sand are injected into the earth at high pressures in order to decimate the ground below. By doing this, trapped gas is released through these fractures, and are then extracted by companies such as Range Resources in order to harvest its energy and exploit its power. While Griswold explores the multitude of dimensions fracking entails and how it has negatively impacted land sovereignty, community, and health, the book is truly compelling in regard to how corporations both openly and insidiously strategize in order to gain trust, maintain prominence, and skirt responsibility. This struggle is what defines the text, and it is a frustrating conundrum the reader is immediately acquainted with.
Opening with the county fair, the audience is thrust into an atmospheric summer day swarmed with corporations striving to appear “neighborly”, bidding on animals, giving out water bottles, cushions, and multiple other memorabilia (Griswold, 2018, 16). This is an arguably effective setup, bettered by Griswold’s use of a casual, deeply descriptive composition that dances between personal and factual anecdotes used to insert the reader into the mindset of those attending. This stylistic voice remains steady throughout the book as this friendly guise is shed, and the professional mask soon begins to slip when problems begin to arise for those that leased land. Griswold then takes the audience through the legal, emotional, and at times physical (at one point Beth even gets shot at) journey Stacey must take after she leases property herself. This corporate deception never goes away, but just changes form. It is an infuriating process to witness as a reader- to watch the lies so glaringly multiply, from Range Employee Laura Rusmisel denying the company’s use of ethylene glycol, to the redacted pages presented in the courtroom in relation to water testing at Yeager farm (Griswold, 2018, 51). The way these strategies change to fit their agenda is the driving force of much conflict, and eventual resolution, that fortifies this text.
Companies such as Range Resources apply corporate strategies that undermine, deliberately deceive, and subtly manipulate the people that have what they want most- gas trapped in their land. While many citizens in the United States do not own the mineral rights to their land, fracking companies must first have a point of extraction or a drill site. With this, comes the need for infrastructure to handle the truckloads of materials and workers, as well as infrastructure for large storage tanks, pipelines and waste ponds, to maintain an operational well site. Land becomes integral in this process. Unfortunately, small town citizens like Stacey Haney and Beth Voyles, lack the corporate knowledge and the wherewithal to gain proper legal representation and consultation before such agreements are made. This is exemplified by one of the first duplicitous interactions Stacey had with Range Resources. A safe water provision in the leasing agreement was assured to Stacey by one of Range’s leasing agents, yet when the time came to sign, they “didn’t think they could review legal documents at 4:30 p.m. if the office closed at 5:00” (Griswold 2018, 27). Rushed and feeling pressured to sign in fear that Range Resources would buy the surrounding land rather than theirs, they signed. As soon as the project started, thick clouds of dust started covering their homes from the construction trucks. Soon after that, Harley, Stacey’s son, became ill with a bizarre chronic illness. Later, they found the water safety provisions to be absent. In the span of 30 minutes, the Haneys and Voyles had signed off the rights to their land, and consequently safe drinking water, in almost complete ignorance. Stacey’s hot water tank, kitchen faucet, and dishwasher, all ran black with sludge (Griswold, 2018). As her farm animals began dropping like flies, a correlation was made between the family’s illnesses and the fracking wells. It was later confirmed that the local sludge pond was septic, poisoning the world around it. On top of that, the foundation of their home cracked, cars were damaged, and grime filled their throats (Griswold, 2018).
Beyond the walls of corporate offices and property lines of leasees, battles also ensue in courtrooms, town halls, and legal offices. Griswold notes that fracking, especially in Stacey’s case, is political. Former President Barack Obama had promised to further regulate fracking wells, only to change that stance a few years later. Stacey thought of this as a betrayal, and found herself distrusting the government that had (then) promised to help her. The idea of “American energy”was something that delighted many people, so fracking continued at an all time high during the “natural gas boom” (Griswold, 2018). However, government protection sectors, such as the EPA, were doing little to assist those complaining of toxicity and pollution, and instead created policies that only protected the benefits of the privatized companies. As argued by Griswold, “Policy made in Washington, D.C., affected peoples jobs, and their health” (Griswold, 2018). This sense of Patriotism influencing the public reactions to Oil and Gas, as well as the State’s willful complicity in fracking and its inability to ensure justice for those negatively affected, is a central and crucial theme to this text.
The last key theme Griswold touched on that we found fundamental was the overall culture and embeddedness of fracking within the community, and how this complex and nuanced microcosm functions under the stress of an extractive industry. Understanding this culture of neighbors, family, independence, and privacy is crucial to understand how to talk to, approach, and sympathize with townspeople in this region. This culture, however, is also the cause of one of the biggest inspirational arches of the entire story: Stacey. Stacey has to overcome this shame and rejection, and begins to even publicly speak at activist events, testify in court, write a letter to President Obama, and then eventually win a case against Range Resources in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Dec. 19, 2013 (Griswold, 2018, 148). We felt ourselves getting rather excited and cheering her on during multiple points of the story, this also culminating when she spoke in front of 500 people, as the reader can personally witness these events garner more and more interest and Stacey gains more and more confidence in herself (Griswold, 2018, 150). This is one of the great joys and important parts of this book: the humanizing of the impoverished victims, as well as triumphing Stacey’s resourcefulness and intelligence through unconventional means. So often, those that live in poor communities are deemed less worthy of help, or too “backwards” and “stupid” to help themselves. Griswold’s story proves them wrong. Not only does she go into length as to the founded reasons why individuals leased their land to these communities, but when faced with problems most anyone would find insurmountable, there are countless moments of resourcefulness, resilience, and strength. Stacey, a single mom of two children (one of which is arsenic poisoned with a stomach full of ulcers), begins writing down evidence and collecting data completely on her own, a fact that even shocks her future lawyer Kendra. It is something that companies didn’t count on, and something we often forget; those in Washington County are individuals with their own strengths, talents, and beliefs. They are not one dimensional, blank canvases on which to paint agendas. They are human beings with, even if we do not always agree, reasons to stand by what they do. While corporations may prey on their conservatism or closed culture, this book is great at relating to this population from a different, more conservationist angle, and reveals to us personally, a richer understanding of how to sympathize, communicate with, and relate with this community.