review

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

190802 Amity and Prosperity cover

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.

12 replies »

  1. To me the most pertinent part is that referring to the lack of prefracking water testing.
    Unbelievably no recent testing of the Main Drain between the Preston New Road fracking site and Lytham Estuary by Lytham Quays has been undertaken by the Environment Agency, our Gold Standard Monitors!
    Seriously you couldn’t make it up!

  2. I have read this book and it is tragic. What is clear is that many of the impacts suffered by Ms Haney did not just result from the evaporation pond. It is noted the first thing that made her son ill was the pollution from HGV traffic. We all know how air pollution can cause ill health and premature death. The foundations of her old farmhouse were damaged through HGV traffic and vibration, her farm animals became sick and died, the family and particularly her son suffered ill health because of odours and air pollution from the fracking activities. Ms Haney’s son was made seriously ill and admitted to hospital. Even children in the US are subjected to gagging orders. Clearly it would appear the EPA and DUP have been lacking and add this to a fear of litigation, community division and the gagging orders and it is easy to understand the turmoil. This is a woman, a mother, a farmer, a nurse who embraced fracking as did her neighbours. Ms Haney was not anti fracking. The government in the UK recently withheld from the public a report on air quality and how the air impacts from fracking at a local level can be substantial. The report was completed in 2015 but the government released it in 2018, days after the planning decision for PNR. That should be of great concern to all of us. The lessons from the US must be learnt in the UK, the vested interests and power of the lobbyists and industry cannot be allowed to override the safety and wellbeing of others. And whilst I know those that support fracking will be quick to quote gold regulations and how great the UK industry is, I would point out that so far there is little evidence of that. There have been numerous breaches documented and the industry is arguing for relaxation of regulation. The industry assured the government it could frack at PNR within the existing TLS regime just before fracking commenced at PNR. However as soon as it was proved wrong it demanded the levels be raised. I have heard and read the arguments but it does not instil confidence. Why would a company state they were confident they could frack within existing levels if they considered them impractically low? Why not argue for them to be raised in the several years between the TLS being agreed and actually fracking? Or at the very least before they fracked? Fracking is clearly a costly process so it is hard to understand why a “suck it and see” approach would be preferred or that a “realistic” TLS would not have been argued for years ago. After all they have lobbied government for many changes since the days when the TLS was agreed. I’m sorry but the evidence draws one to the conclusion they believed they could frack within those limits, which is exactly what the local MP concluded as well. Indeed Cuadrilla admitted they got it wrong in a press interview. We must not allow the industry to dictate the terms as they have in the US.

      • hewes62 You say you don’t support the use of frack returns to dampen down dust on roads and that this activity is not allowed here in the U.K. My comment on that is ” Not yet.”
        Already, even though fracking has only begun in this country, time after time we have seen regulators give in to the requests to vary the regulations and conditions. If a process becomes problematic or too expensive you can be sure the industry will be crying for a change to the regulations and the regulators will oblige.

        • Pauline Jones

          I understand what you are getting at, but I think not ( as it is our opinions ).

          1. We have made up roads. Although not specifically mentioned in the report, the dust would be from non made up roads.

          2. Although we have waste water from the existing industry for many years, , no one has asked for permission to pop it on to roads.

          3. The waste water is treated as radioactive waste, so a derogation of this regulation would apply to more than just frack water.

          Plus, varying the conditions of permits is not unusual, but changes to the base regulation not so.

          Have you an example of where the regulations have been varied ( there may well be one or many but as I understand the regulator cannot vary the base regulation )?

          Only 13 states allow or allowed it.

          https://news.psu.edu/story/523652/2018/05/30/research/oil-and-gas-wastewater-dust-suppressant-less-ideal

          • My comment was a more general one that so far, requests to vary Regulations may result in a “public consultation” but this is then ignored and the industry get whatever they ask for. Remember George Osborne’s instruction, ” Give the industry its asks”.This doesn’t inspire much confidence in Gold Standard Regulation. The TLS has been maintained for now but for how long? If the industry is ever to go into full scale production, the pressure to relax any rules that adversely affect profitability will be very hard for regulators, particularly with their massively reduced funding and manpower, to resist.

            • Pauline Jones

              The TLS has yet to be relaxed, but I take your point.

              However, in my experience all rules get tougher as time goes by and lessons learned are incorporated into legislation. A fair proportion of our regulations are nothing to do with fracking, but fracking applies to them.

              The wells regs, waste directive, borehole sites regs, COSHH, COMAH, RIDDOR etc etc apply. Derogations are unlikely, or very difficult as they apply to many industries.

              Indeed, the North Sea oil and gas industry is in full scale operation and has not relaxed the base regulation, quite the opposite, especially in terms of environmental requirements ( drill cuttings would be a good example, venting or oil to sea ). Nor did WYF.

              Re funding of the regulator, having been one, the likelihood of a derogation is more likely to reduce due to shrinking resource than expand. The regulator has to justify a derogation ( as they do agreement ) which requires resource. Less resource, less derogation, and it is Parliament who need to derogate legislation?

              However, I disagree with putting frack fluid or produced water on roads, so if that is proposed,I will hold one end of the banner.

              • hewes62 – in the 1980s with Amoco we used oil based mud in Hampshire for highly deviated wells at Stockbridge / Larkwhistle Farm to control the Oxford Clay above the Oolite reservoirs. This left us with a cuttings disposal problem. We sourced fly ash from a local power station and mixed the fly ash with the oil based mud cuttings, I forget the ratio, say 75/25, and provided the resulting mixture to local farmers to metal their tracks. This mix set very solid when applied, and apparently was very hard wearing. No doubt this will never be allowed now – an example of improving and tightening regulation in the industry.

                • Paul Tresco

                  Thanks.

                  The link below gives an interesting take on how UK offshore got to grips with cuttings disposal offshore.

                  It also, in passing notes that Norway had more leeway than the UK, as they could ship cuttings from one platform to another for re injection. You had to re inject them on the platform they came from or skip to shore.

                  This was not allowed in the UK due to the waste directive and resulting UK legislation. That may have changed as although well meaning, it did not make sense.

                  https://www.shipsandoil.co.uk/operations-introduction/drill-cuttings-disposal

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