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What Happened When Fracking Came to Town

Griswold reports so much government neglect, deception and collusion — here augmented with data from the Public Accountability Initiative, NPR’s StateImpact project and the nonprofit investigative site Public Herald — that as I read I abbreviated my marginal notes to “WPHG.” By the time her story reaches 2016, it’s plain that people who have lost their water, their home’s value, their farm animals and pets, their health and hope for relief would not be making conventional electoral choices. Beth Voyles voted for Donald Trump; Stacey Haney, for Jill Stein.

The broad political costs of fracking are not expressly Griswold’s subject, however. Her impressive research notwithstanding, “Amity and Prosperity” is at heart a David and Goliath story fit for the movies. It has everything but a happy ending: a bucolic setting concealing fortune and danger; poor but proud locals who’ve endured sequential boom-bust cycles of resource extraction (Prosperity is a neighboring town ravaged by long-wall mining); tough, reluctant victim-heroes; grisly scenes of animal die-off; and courtroom drama, as a tenacious husband-wife legal team takes on the industry and the state, wins one important case but can’t outlast its adversaries’ moneyed obstructionism. Stacey and Beth settle out of court and submit to a gag order. Harley gets healthier once the family abandons its home, but, with no illusions left, he finishes high school on the internet and takes a job laying gas pipeline. Advantage, Goliath.

Mood carries the story. We know Harley by his long alienation. We know the lawyer Kendra Smith by her mastery of an alphabet of toxins, her slog through documents and her ire as Range Resources refuses to disclose all its proprietary chemicals. We know Stacey by her dedication — to her kids and three jobs, to whatever tradition she can salvage and fight she can muster. Mostly we know her by her fury and her fears. The book’s prologue reproduces a raging note she posted on her forsaken farmhouse after thieves stripped it of metal. Through most of the action she strives to be polite: Don’t make anyone mad, she reasons, it’ll only get worse for you.

It gets worse anyway. Range Resources inexorably appropriates Amity’s allegiances and civic life. The county fair devolves into occupied territory, an echo of Griswold’s previous experience reporting in Asia and Africa. From so vital a perspective, one longs for at least a snapshot of national scale — the West pocked with frackpads, the almost daily earthquakes in Oklahoma from waste injection, the tens of thousands of people who’ve had no say in drilling near their homes, the workers risking damage, the question everywhere: Who will defend the water?

Griswold ascribes ideas to Stacey about “the American dream” and the need to “tough it out,” about the “price one paid for progress” and failing “through no fault of her own.” Maybe Stacey used those phrases (she is not directly quoted doing so), but she should have been spared banality. She fell for a con. Her own night terrors best convey her sense of responsibility and fracture: images of driving in reverse, of her children trapped or falling, of her inability to control anything — dreams from which she awoke “caught between gasping for breath and fearing the air.”

Until land is laid waste nearby, people don’t think much about sacrificed populations or the historic function of government rooted in colonization and corporatism. Thieving, or regulating theft, is a simple term for it. People who’ve lost their water to fracking, like those who live in impoverished, toxified communities everywhere, like the people of Flint, are on a continuum that began with the indigenous peoples, the enslaved Africans and the “waste people” (“refuse,” as Benjamin Franklin called poor Pennsylvanians), who were forced off the land, into bondage or penury at America’s dawn. The nature of oppression changes, but the levers of power that have helped some to prosper while allowing many to sink are hardened in place, and the persistent question, implicit in this valuable, discomforting book, is Who will unstick them?

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