AMITY AND PROSPERITY
One Family and the Fracturing of America
Stacey Haney’s family has lived in the towns of Amity and Prosperity for 150 years. Struggling to support her children, in 2008 she agreed to let frackers extract natural gas from deep beneath her tiny, eight-acre farm. The initial royalty checks covered her mortgage, but she felt anything but relief: her animals had started developing mysterious illnesses, and her children became chronically sick too. Patches of grass were dying. The air and water smelled foul. Yet the energy company insisted that nothing was wrong—until Stacey and her neighbors enlisted a shrewd, relentless husband-and-wife attorney team. The ensuing investigation revealed deep rifts in Stacey’s rural community,
Stacey Haney’s family has lived in the towns of Amity and Prosperity for 150 years. Struggling to support her children, in 2008 she agreed to let frackers extract natural gas from deep beneath her tiny, eight-acre farm. The initial royalty checks covered her mortgage, but she felt anything but relief: her animals had started developing mysterious illnesses, and her children became chronically sick too. Patches of grass were dying. The air and water smelled foul. Yet the energy company insisted that nothing was wrong—until Stacey and her neighbors enlisted a shrewd, relentless husband-and-wife attorney team. The ensuing investigation revealed deep rifts in Stacey’s rural community, but the more she learned, the more determined she became to expose the contamination and cover-ups that eventually made her home uninhabitable.
At once alarming and deeply moving, Amity and Prosperity takes us to the root of the political and environmental troubles that have divided our nation.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- June 2018
- 336 Pages
“Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity exposes the terrible human cost of fracking, but it’s about much more. It’s a morally complex and beautifully written story of Appalachia, of family, of resources we all use. It’s about what binds and tears apart a community and a country. Griswold’s dedication and clear-eyed empathy glow on every page.”—George Packer, author of The Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award
“Riveting and outraging. An essential account of corporate wrongdoing, regulatory collusion, and citizen resistance in an unequal age.”—Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, winner of the National Book Award
“So what can happen to a poor family living on beautiful Pennsylvania farmland atop the Marcellus Shale during a fracking boom? For more than seven years, Eliza Griswold follows Stacey Haney, a nurse and single mom, and her two children as Stacey’s hopes for big money fade in the face of contaminated water and air, torn-up roads, a bedridden son, lawsuits and homelessness. In this exquisitely crafted and gripping account, Griswold takes us through Stacey’s fight for justice and our nation’s faltering struggle to balance a need for energy with a compelling call for a clean planet. Slow journalism at its very best.”—Arlie Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land, a National Book Award finalist
“Any discussion of whether fracking is worth it must take into account the suffering it inflicts on people living nearby. This beautifully told story of a Pennsylvania family’s harrowing losses makes that suffering vividly real. Griswold describes with the steadily intensifying intimacy of a novelist how the invincible Stacey Haney escapes with her children and survives.” —Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning
1. Washington County was particularly vulnerable to the fracking industry because of poverty. What is at the heart of that poverty? Why isn’t it possible for the area to provide a good livelihood in America anymore?
2. In chapter 2, “When the Boom Began,” Stacey signs a contract with Range Resources granting her the lowest possible royalty rate allowed by law (12.5%), minus a variety of Range expenses. If you had been in her situation, would you have signed the contract?
3. How are Harley’s physical health and emotional health intertwined? What accounts for the differences between the way he and his sister, Paige, experience their symptoms?
4. Chapter 19, “Policing the State,” describes the history of ACT 13, the Pennsylvania law that quashed local governments’ ability to regulate oil and gas operators. The law also required physicians to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to learn which chemicals had sickened their patients. As you read about the ensuing legal battle, culminating in key provisions of ACT 13 being declared unconstitutional, where did you place the blame for Stacey’s situation? Are voters the solution or the problem?
5. How does Pappy’s family history affect Stacey? What does the history of the region (particularly William Penn’s “holy experiment” and the eventual brutality between Native Americans and Scots Irish immigrants) teach us about the current power struggles between industry, government, and rebels?
6. Hang ‘em High meetings were attended by an odd combination of Pennsylvanians who were united in the fight against Range Resources but disagreed about how and why. How did Stacey cope with the political contradictions in her community? Why would a conservationist reject environmentalists? Why aren’t scientists more politically empowered?
7. Access to clean water has always been a sign of freedom to Stacey, and her turn to water buffalos represented defeat. Is access to clean water a human right, or is clean water better understood as a commodity that might be bought?
8. The healthcare industry provided Stacey with a middle-class wage and is one of the few steady employers in her region. Yet she struggled to pay for the thousands of dollars in medical tests required for herself and her family. What does that say about the economics of illness in America?
9. Discuss the book’s title. What would it take to bring amity and prosperity to Washington County?
10. Stacey hoped for a settlement, but Harley was opposed to it. Would you have accepted a settlement?
11. What accounts for the tenacity of lawyers like the Smiths (who were willing to pursue cases against Range for years on a shoestring budget) and plaintiffs like Stacey? What keeps them from being easily intimidated or succumbing to despair?
12. Ron Yeager obtained a pre-drill test, but Buzz, Stacey, and the Voyleses didn’t. If you were on a jury, what proof would you need of his water in order to be convinced about the cause of the contamination? If the liner of a drill cuttings pit or a waste pond is shown to be leaking, should that be sufficient evidence that the pit or pond is the source of toxins?
13. As you read about the suffering of Stacey’s animals (including the offspring of Boots and Diva), along with the tragic contamination of springs that flow from the Ten Mile Creek Watershed, how did the book shape your view of the natural world? How much responsibility do we have to protect the planet and its creatures, beyond what’s necessary for our own survival?
14. What did you discover about the way the energy industry weighs risk versus rewards? What would your life look like if humans stopped extracting minerals from the earth?
1 | FAIR 2010
Most years at the Washington County Fair, Stacey Haney set up an animal salon outside her blue and white Coachman trailer. She and her younger sister, Shelly, would plug a blow-dryer into a generator and style their children’s goats in preparation for the 4-H competition. This year, the salon seemed too much effort, so Stacey readied the animals at home. She’d spent the past two days up to her armpits in a blue kiddie pool of freezing water and Mane ’n Tail soap washing, clipping, and brushing two goats, two pigs, and four rabbits. Then, that August morning, she’d hauled them ten miles to the fairgrounds.
After registering the rabbits, she proceeded to Cowley’s lemonade stand with her eleven-year-old daughter, Paige. Thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, the Washington County Fairground was composed of two worlds. The lower realm contained the Tilt-A-Whirl operated by strangers, roustabouts who arrived from elsewhere. (Stacey’s son, Harley, who’d just turned fourteen, called it Carnyland.) The upper belonged to 4-H and agriculture—“ag”—types, many of whom, including Stacey’s family, considered themselves Hoopies, an insider’s name for the hill jacks or hillbillies who live in the borderlands of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia where Appalachia begins.
These two worlds met midway up the ridge at Cowley’s, where Stacey and Paige were waiting for lemonade when they spied two familiar figures trundling downhill from the horse barn. The square woman with frosted hair and the spare man with a snowy mane and a limp were Beth and John Voyles. They lived next door at Justa Breeze, a fifteen-acre farm where they trained horses and bred high-end dogs. The two families shared a fence and a love of animals. Beth treated her boxers like children. She cooked them angel hair pasta, zucchini, and meatball sandwiches, and dressed them in tiny leather jackets, flight goggles, and scarves for professional photographs. She framed the photos and hung them around the ranch house where she’d lived with John for the past twenty-eight years.
Say what one might about the Voyles, over the past year and a half, they’d proven excellent neighbors. While Stacey, forty, juggled full-time shifts as a nurse in the recovery unit of Washington Hospital and finalized her divorce from Larry Haney, the Voyles kept a quiet eye on her place. Their daughter, Ashley, often brought her new boxer puppy, Cummins, down to distract Harley when he was sick at home. At twenty-two, Ashley still lived at home and raced horses professionally. She’d also been teaching Paige to ride since Paige was two.
As Beth and John approached, Stacey could see that mascara was running down Beth’s ruddy face. Stacey guessed it was the muggy heat; the air at the fair was redolent with popcorn and musk, which mingled with the scent of baby shampoo from the Mane ’n Tail lingering on Stacey’s arms. A rash blazed on Stacey’s left arm, where it had been erupting on and off for months. Although she was a nurse, she couldn’t determine its cause. She studied the welts, and when she looked up, Beth was in front of her, her face smeared with tears.
Cummins is dead, Beth said. Poisoned.
Stacey’s head swam. In her mind, she scanned the farmhouses and trailers that wended their way from the top of the valley where she and Beth lived down McAdams Road to the base of the hollow called the Bottoms. She knew nearly everyone. Many families were bound by generations of helping one another farm and, more recently, survive the economic collapse of the past several decades.
No one would poison a puppy, she told Beth gently. Beth thought otherwise. The vet had told her that Cummins’s insides had frozen up, she said, crystallized, as if he’d drunk antifreeze. The vet couldn’t rule out cancer, either, but Beth suspected foul play. She also thought she knew where the poison had come from: she’d seen the dog drinking from a puddle of water left on the roadside after a truck came through to spray down dust earlier that summer. Wondering what the liquid was, she’d tried to follow with a glass Mason jar, but the driver stopped. Screeching his air brake on the steep dirt hill, he yelled at her to back away.
Later, Beth and Stacey would mark this conversation about Cummins’s death as the beginning of solving a mystery. But at the time, Stacey was sweaty and distracted. Paige stood by, crunching the sugar at the bottom of her cup. Stacey hugged Beth and watched her continue down the hill with John toward the field of neon. She wanted to get back to the trailer to check on Harley. She dreaded telling him the news.
Harley loved Cummins, and he was so sick. Over the past year and a half, his stomach had churned with an undiagnosed illness. He’d missed most of seventh grade sitting at home in a recliner watching his dog, Hunter, play with Cummins on the living room floor. Harley had gone from being a shy and handsome basketball player who shambled easily through life to a listless stick figure. At six foot one, he was 127 pounds. A few days earlier, when Harley weighed his goat, Boots, for competition at the fair, she’d weighed nearly the same as her master.
Stacey hoped that this year’s 4-H competition would lift his spirits. She and Harley had ambitions for Boots. Instead of being skittish, as most goats are, Boots was friendly. Harley’d spent every day with her since he was home, which may have been why the brown and white Boer goat enjoyed people. When Harley went up to the Haneys’ ramshackle barn to feed her, Boots slung her hooves over the wooden pen to lick his face.
With Boots, Harley had a chance at winning a large prize, maybe Grand Champion Showmanship, Stacey thought. She loved the fair and spent most of the year preparing for it, phoning in to goat auctions through the winter and trying to make sure she got her kids the best goats and pigs she could for $150 to $200, which wasn’t a lot. Other people spent $600, and she’d heard of a family that paid $5,000 for a pig they hoped would win Grand Champion.
“Even if I could spend five thousand dollars on a pig, I wouldn’t,” she said. It was flashy and wrong, and went against the spirit of the 212-year-old fair, which had helped to pattern their family’s lives for three generations. Her father, Larry Hillberry, whom everyone called Pappy, grew up poor on a small dairy farm nearby. He’d attended but didn’t show animals. “We couldn’t afford to. We ate them all,” he told his grandchildren. Pappy was twenty when he went to work in the local steel mill and then left for Vietnam, returning two years later with feet too riddled with warts from wet combat boots to stand at the steel mill’s assembly line. Forced by the condition of his feet to take a few months away from the mill, he came courting at the fair. He played bingo, winning a set of blue-trimmed Corningware dishes for his soon-to-be bride, Linda. A year and a half later, on November 18, 1969, Stacey was born.
By the time Stacey and Shelly, a whip-smart hellion who came along two years later, were old enough to participate in 4-H, the steel mill where Pappy worked was shuttered. With Pappy out of work, the family scraped by. He took every odd job he could find, chopping wood and putting up hay, and Linda, along with a generation of Amity women, left the house to work as a housekeeper, but it still cost too much to let the girls show animals.
Stacey was thirteen when she went to work. She mucked stalls and sold ice cream at the family end of the bar in the Amity Tavern. As soon as she could drive, she got a job as a seamstress in a men’s store in the Washington Mall. At seventeen, Stacey graduated from high school and left home for good on a full scholarship to beauty school. It didn’t hurt that she was striking, with large blue eyes below a thicket of black lashes. At nineteen, she was married and cutting hair at Someplace Else Salon, where her elderly clients encouraged her to go back to school and join the throngs of young women entering the health care industry. This wasn’t just Stacey’s personal narrative; this was the story of the region. With steel gone and coal on its way out, communities were turning to “meds and eds,” hospitals and universities, now the largest employers. As a nurse, Stacey, in scrubs, would have a demanding but stable place in the sterile halls of a postindustrial landscape.
With two small kids, Stacey preferred cutting hair to the midnight shifts, but steady work as a nurse allowed her to give Harley and Paige the middle-class trappings her parents couldn’t afford, the fair first among them. Paige and Harley’d been showing at the fair since they could walk. At five, Harley won first place with his eggs. As the kids grew, their full involvement in country activities also marked a return to Stacey’s vision of her family’s history. She wanted farming to be once again a way of life rather than the expensive hobby it had become.
As the goat show began, Stacey stood by the ring’s steel railing and waited for Harley’s number to be called. She scanned the crowd. In front of the silver bleachers, filled with the usual shaggy-haired ag folk in Carhartt overalls and trucker hats, she spied a small group of clean-cut outsiders wearing blue polo shirts that read RANGE RESOURCES. They sat close to the ring in red plastic chairs. Stacey knew who they were: gas executives had recently arrived in the region with the shale gas boom.
In 2004, Range Resources, which was based in Fort Worth, Texas, had successfully fracked the first well in Washington County. Now, six years later, the billion-dollar company was the largest producer of natural gas in the southwestern part of the state. Forbes magazine was calling Range “the King of the Marcellus,” the gas-rich shale deposit that stretched from New York State to West Virginia and contained enough natural gas to power America for a decade. Range’s stock price reflected its success in the Marcellus, rising from just under seven dollars in 2004 to fifty dollars in 2010, as the natural gas boom approached its apex. With its sudden bounty and low price, natural gas was a great bet for the future. It also burned cleaner than coal, releasing less carbon into the atmosphere. And soon, Pennsylvania would be producing one-fifth of America’s supply.
The Washington County Fair provided a place where companies could speak directly to farmers whose mineral rights they coveted. Range Resources began to attend in 2006, thanks to Ray Walker, who’d graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering from Texas A&M and now headed the company’s new Marcellus Division. Walker was known to be a man of principle. He seemed less concerned with Range’s public appearance than with simply enjoying the fair. He also bid on pigs and goats.
Most locals saw the gas company’s involvement in the fair as a gesture of neighborliness. They cheered industry’s return. It marked a new era in a long-depressed place, and the lease money Range and other companies paid helped people replace roofs, build fences, and hang on to their farms instead of being forced to sell to developers. Corporations were also generously filling the pockets of Washington County’s kids, including Harley Haney’s, buying up their animals at auction.
Stacey was skeptical. It made her uneasy to watch these corporations come in and toss money around, and she suspected that Range Resources wanted something in return for its mini water bottles and freebie seat cushions. Stacey was convinced that the animals that fetched the highest prices tended to belong to the children of large landowners whose farms were most attractive to oil and gas companies looking to sign leases. Stacey had signed her own lease with Range two years earlier, but that hadn’t turned out like she’d planned.
When Harley stepped into the ring with Boots, however, Stacey’s irritation vanished. In his red shirt and dark jeans, Harley led his goat on a short leash without having to tug her along like the rest of the kids did. The goat heeled as a dog does and then stood on command as Harley set her feet squarely in the sawdust. When the judge took her back leg in his hand to examine her, she stayed still. Harley smiled down at her and at the judges, not the ear-to-ear grin of the boy showman, but the self-conscious half smile of a young man proud of his animal. Together, he and Boots won Grand Champion Showmanship.
The 2010 fair marked a good year for the family. Pepsi and Phantom, two of Paige’s rabbits, tied for second place. Paige also took second in the junior SPAM-cooking contest with her southwestern-themed Mexi-SPAM Mac and Cheese. Pappy won a blue ribbon for his butternuts for the second year running.
Packing up the trailer at the week’s end, Stacey was relieved. The fair had gone better than she’d dared to hope. In addition to the kids’ wins, there was the successful visit by her friend Chris Rush. Chris, who was six years younger, had grown up in Amity. Although they’d been dating nearly a year, she wouldn’t call him her boyfriend until she was sure that he was going to stick. At the fair, he’d shown up for Harley’s and Paige’s events. In his reticent way, he offered support by just being there, and that pleased her. She was also so happy with Boots and the rabbits that she decided not to sell them. Although, as a Boer, Boots was raised for meat, Stacey now wanted to breed her with their neighbor’s billy. Selling the babies would bring in some helpful cash.
After five nights in the camper away from home, Harley had improved in both body and spirit. Striding around the fair with ease, he was still a scarecrow, but a happy one. He clearly felt better, and Stacey hoped that she was watching his illness recede for the last time, returning him to the boy he’d been before he got sick.
2 | WHEN THE BOOM BEGAN
Stacey had long wanted to replace the battered lean-to that housed their animals, exposing them to wind, rain, and snow. But on the six hundred dollars she made a week as a nurse, the dream barn remained a dream. When oil and gas leases began to appear in people’s mailboxes in the early 2000s, she thought that this lease money might finally pay for it. No one knew what these new leases would yield, but at work at Washington Hospital, her fellow nurses told stories—rural myths really—about this or that elderly hayseed with hundreds of rocky acres who’d suddenly become a shaleionaire.
Talk of who was cashing in and how they were doing it became part of daily chatter in the recovery unit, a fourteen-bed open bay hung with pale green curtains, which Stacey and four other nurses on duty kept open unless they were emptying bedpans or changing a catheter. Patients arrived directly from the operating room, asleep or emerging from sedation’s murky depths. The nurses’ main job was to make sure that no one stroked out, which was rare. More often they woke up nauseous and confused. Clad in scrubs of blue bottoms and white V-necks, the nurses moved among their patients as machines monitored vitals automatically. Every fifteen minutes, the machines issued a series of bleeps measuring blood pressure.
Stacey was happiest working a shift alongside her best friend, Kelly Tush, a soft-spoken redhead. Both liked their jobs, although they complained about the long hours. A shift could last from twelve to twenty-three hours straight with no breaks. Still, even when exhausted, Stacey possessed a natural tenderness with patients, an empathy with the infirm. There was something about a vulnerable person lying in bed, often a neighbor or someone she knew, that elicited a calm in her. She was also that way with animals and small children.
The nurses kept their voices low until they were in the break room, where amid the lingering aroma of urine, bleach, and blood they ate lunch and talked about whatever was going on in their lives. Stacey often entertained her colleagues with tales of farm life, which involved the latest antics of her animals—stories of her donkey, Bob, who kept breaking down the fence between her place and the Voyles’ farm next door. Bob was in love with their high-class mare, Doll, and kept trying to mount her.
Since Stacey lived farther out in the country than most, where leasing was at its peak, she was the first with the chance to sign. When the shiny SUVs of the land men who negotiated the leases appeared on the back roads of Amity, Stacey plotted a course of action. In 2004, as the buzz of Range’s groundbreaking success with fracking in Washington County trickled down to its residents, few locals understood what fracking was, or what these leases entailed. On signing, people could earn a bonus from five dollars to seven thousand dollars an acre; there were few rules governing such deals, and Stacey, with eight acres, was hoping for the going price of a thousand dollars each, nearly the nine-thousand-dollar price tag of the barn she wanted to build.
Yet signing a lease wasn’t just about money. Stacey also saw it as her patriotic duty. She, like many Americans, was tired of the United States sending troops to fight wars for oil. Her father had served the country’s dubious needs in Vietnam, and she saw the war in Iraq as more of the same. Once again, poor Americans were fighting on behalf of the rich. “My dad lived through Vietnam,” she said. “I’m totally about getting soldiers home, and not relying on foreign oil.”
It wasn’t just about ending wars. Relying on domestic energy could also help restore America’s place in the world, possibly returning Amity to its former standing. She’d heard the news reports about how natural gas could revive the region’s industries, and thought of her father and those of his generation who’d lost their jobs. And although Stacey had her doubts about the full-throated corporate messaging, this had little effect on her desire to sign a lease. These new leases sprang from the ground—a rare win in a place that had been losing for generations.
She also hoped that signing a gas lease might block the coal company from undermining her farm. She, like others, didn’t want Amity to become like Prosperity, the village seven miles away where a kind of industrial coal mining called “long wall” had cost many farm families their water by damaging the aquifer below their land. In response, the coal company bought up people’s property and some residents left. Once empty, the houses were stripped of their copper wiring by scrap metal thieves, which made them unlivable and risked turning Prosperity into yet another coal patch ghost town. Maybe, Stacey and others thought, the gas companies would trump the coal operators, and drilling would stave off mining. The unknown realities of drilling for shale gas seemed preferable to the familiar toll coal mining levied.
Stacey first asked her neighbor Rick Baker for advice on leasing back in 2006. He lived a mile from the Haneys’ farmhouse and taught Harley guitar. He also cut an unusual figure in Amity: a mild-mannered church-choir director who wore wire-rimmed glasses, he was a registered Democrat. As he grew older, he grew more committed to progressive politics, mostly around social issues, including gay and transgender rights. Historically, being a Democrat here wasn’t unusual, due to the legacy of the coal and steel unions that once held sway. Over time, however, many union members had moved to the right out of hostility to the federal government, which they felt was both failing them and invading their lives. Baker was one of the few he knew who voted for Obama.
Although Baker had some concerns about the environmental hazards related to fracking, he was pro-gas. As he saw it, the benefits to the country outweighed the potential personal costs of contaminated water. Every industrial practice came with risks. “If we don’t take chances we’re not going to continue to be the greatest nation in the world,” he said. He also believed it was time for landowners to share some of the risks that coal miners had borne for centuries. Those who campaigned against fracking were mostly environmentalists who had no experience with extractive industry and stood to make nothing off of leases. They knew nothing of what it meant to live atop a coal mine, of poisoned streams, of how a coal company’s bankruptcy devastated a town, of how a farm could lose its water when the coal was mined from beneath it.
Baker also had other reasons to favor fracking over his region’s legacy of coal: he stood to make hundreds of thousands by leasing his land for a compressor station. The station would place the gas under enough pressure that it could hurtle another fifty to one hundred miles toward the East Coast markets of Philadelphia and New York City. From the start, Baker had enjoyed good relations with Range Resources. He found the employees who came out to survey his pastures to be up-front, and liked it when the higher-ups took him into confidence regarding their plans. For a time, the money would change the lives of both Baker and his wife, Melinda, a housekeeper. Melinda was able to stop cleaning houses. Baker, like others, wasn’t going to rush off to Florida with a big wad of cash. He would stay on the land, and continue to live his steady life, giving guitar lessons.
He was confident enough in Range Resources that when the company approached him to ask if he’d make a television commercial for their “My Range Resources” campaign, Baker said yes. On radio and television ads, Range wanted to show local people enjoying the outdoors while talking about the benefits of leasing. In his spot, Baker wandered his land against a backdrop of his own guitar picking. For the ad, he was paid two hundred dollars. Baker was bright: he knew the fee was a pittance. But he loved composing, and hearing his music on TV was enough to make him happy. There were others, far more vociferous than Baker, who made public salvos on the company’s behalf. “Farmers around here couldn’t afford a tractor,” Mary Dalbo, a Range leaseholder said in her “My Range Resources” advertisement. “Now since they leased their farm to Range Resources, they’re driving tractors with air-conditions. It’s wonderful they got this opportunity, because, believe me, them boys worked hard just to survive.”
Baker was happy to share what he was learning from Range with Stacey. Through Baker and others, Stacey learned that the companies were looking for larger lots to make it easier for them to consolidate leases and infrastructure. The bigger the plot, the more the company might be willing to pay per acre. So one summer evening in 2006, Stacey drove up and down her dirt road to speak to her neighbors. She stopped next door at Justa Breeze to see Beth and John Voyles. Outside their ranch house, a miniature white picket fence surrounded a life-sized statue of a boxer. The dog sat beneath a sign that read BOXER HEAVEN. The Voyles didn’t intend the rock garden to look like a cemetery, just a tribute to the dogs they considered family. Beth moved around a lot as a child; her father was in the military, and she’d originally come to Amity to visit her grandmother’s farm. Now she stayed put, leaving only for horse shows, veterinary appointments, and trips to the Giant Eagle supermarket in nearby Washington. Beth loved to cook, and she usually had a stew pot bubbling on the stove.
When Stacey pulled into the drive, Beth, surrounded by a swarm of slobbering boxers, came out of the basement and greeted her warmly. Stacey explained the virtues of signing a lease together: more money and greater influence than going it alone with a corporation. To Beth, this sounded like a smart idea. She went out to the garage, where her husband liked to retreat to the quiet of a chaise longue. The farm had been in his family for seventy-five years, and this was his refuge. He sat beneath a ceiling fan and next to an antique Ford tractor, which he’d restored himself and painted with the confederate flag. John said yes, as he always did. Whatever Beth wanted was fine by him. A kind and taciturn man, he’d lost his leg at seventeen when he was hit by a car on the way to school. Then he’d worked as a mechanic for seventeen years before getting hurt on the job. Between this incident and a fight with Beth’s half sister, the Voyles had been involved in two personal-injury suits, which gave them a reputation for being litigious. The story was that the Voyles were always suing somebody, but this story, like another about Beth shooting a man in California, was untrue, nothing more than country prattle. John Voyles attempted to avoid such gossip, preferring the solitude of his farm, his family, and his bees.
“Keep to myself kind of,” he said later under oath. “And that ain’t working too good.”
To continue their discussion about signing a lease together, Stacey invited Beth and John down to her farmhouse one evening. She baked sugar cookies for John Voyles, his favorite. Over cookies and coffee, Stacey, the Voyles, and Derrick Puskarich, who lived with his wife down McAdams, discussed the advantages and possible pitfalls of selling off the right to the gas beneath their property.
Stacey was most concerned about protecting the quality of their water, since she’d grown up without any. Her family had relied on rainwater to fill a giant cistern outside their house, or they hauled water. This involved loading a huge plastic tank called a water buffalo onto the bed of a pickup and driving ten miles to fill it at the nearest water station, in a village called Ruff Creek. She hated hauling water; growing up, it had symbolized all her family lacked. When Stacey went looking for a home of her own, the quality of its well and an abundance of clean water had been her top priorities. In any lease she was going to sign, she wanted to include a clause that guaranteed that if anything went wrong with their wells, the company would pay to fix the problem and to supply them water. The Voyles and Puskarichs agreed. So Stacey called Range Resources to discuss the group lease and the clause she wanted to include. After she went back and forth on the phone with Range’s leasing agents, the company drafted the following provision, which Stacey approved: Lessee, at Lessee’s expense, agrees to provide Lessor with potable water until such time as Lessor’s water source has been repaired or replaced with a source of substantially similar quality.
On December 30, 2008, their lease was ready to sign. That day, the families planned to meet together at Range’s corporate offices in Southpointe, the industrial park twenty miles north of Amity, which served as headquarters to nearly every major oil and gas player in the region. Beth and Stacey wanted to start in the morning, so they’d have plenty of time to read the lease carefully. Instead, they were given an appointment for late afternoon, which miffed Beth. She didn’t think they could review legal documents at 4:30 p.m. if the office closed at 5:00. When the families arrived, both Stacey and Beth felt they were being rushed through the stack of documents on the conference table between them. They’d risked not hiring an attorney to keep their costs low, and now Stacey regretted it.
Stacey glanced at Beth to assess whether she looked uneasy too. She wanted to speak to Beth privately, but there were Range employees in the room. She didn’t want to seem rude, so she kept quiet and turned the pages of her lease looking for the water clause. It was missing. When she asked, however, an employee went to fetch a copy of the addendum.
Across the table, Beth also felt they were being treated shabbily. There was no notary there to countersign in front of them, which Beth thought was another indication that the company took them for bumpkins. She considered putting up a fuss and not signing, but there was a risk. All of their neighbors were signing leases, and she was concerned that their little collective plot might get left out. If Range could get what they wanted from others, the company might not need their land. So, reluctantly, she signed. By 5:00 p.m., they were back in the freezing parking lot, unsure they’d done the right thing.
Weeks later, when their fully executed leases arrived in the mail, Beth and Stacey discovered another problem. Now that they had the chance to comb the fine print, they realized the royalty rate in the contract was lower than the one they’d remembered discussing on the phone with the company before signing. According to the contract, they were going to receive a 15 percent royalty rate only after the company had deducted a list of expenses the two women didn’t understand. “It’s so complicated and confusing, you just rely on them that they’re doing the right thing,” Stacey said. She and Beth wondered if the hasty appointment and the practice of rushing them through might have been a tactic for screwing them out of percentage points.
Beth told Stacey she thought they were dealing with “crooks.” She’d anticipated receiving a signing bonus of nearly fifteen thousand dollars for their acreage, but it arrived in installments. “They told me some blame excuse,” as Beth put it. She often misused words—mistakenly substituting one that fit even better. Meanwhile, Stacey’s dream barn would have to wait. Her eight-thousand-dollar signing bonus was also divided. After taxes, each payment dwindled to about half; then she had to split that with her ex-husband, Larry. And there always seemed to be more pressing needs for that last few hundred dollars than putting it aside for the barn.
* * *
By the spring of 2009, a few months after signing the lease, Stacey’s initial suspicions gave way to open frustration. Next door at Justa Breeze, John Voyles had taken to counting the number of trucks that rattled by in a day. He told Stacey that he’d counted 250 trucks passing her farmhouse, which sat 30 feet from the narrow dirt track of McAdams. It was like living next to a highway. Stacey couldn’t believe how much dust the trucks kicked up. The dirt, grimy with diesel oil, settled on the glass hummingbird feeder on the wraparound porch that Stacey kept filled with sugar water. It coated the wooden railings until, by week’s end, it was half an inch thick. The dust gathered on the relics of childhood in the front yard: a tire swing, a trampoline, and an abandoned red tricycle. Stacey had passed her love of little children on to Harley and Paige, so they kept toys on hand for young visitors even after Harley and Paige had outgrown them.
The grime caught in their throats. The goats Harley and Paige raised for the fair began to cough so much that Stacey feared they might not make weight. Harley, Paige, and Stacey coughed too. Their noses ran and their eyes watered. Although Stacey was annoyed, she figured this was the temporary price one paid for progress. They had no choice but to tough it out, as inside, the judder of trucks shook the house, tilting the Sears baby pictures of Harley and Paige, fat-legged and grinning, hanging on the living room wall and rolling Stacey’s antique sock darner off of the shelf and onto the rag rug.
The foundation of Stacey’s house cracked. Vibrations rutted the road with industrial-strength potholes that punctured nine tires on her gold Pontiac G6 and cracked a rim. In her deepening ire, she wasn’t alone; in Amity, and all over the drilling epicenter of Western Pennsylvania, the weight and number of trucks destroyed bridges and roads, imperiling some small farms and dairies that struggled to get their milk to market. And according to state records, nearly half of the industry’s trucks were in such poor condition they had to be removed from use. It wasn’t all a disaster. The companies also paved back roads, which pleased inhabitants, issuing bonds to finance the repairs. But the bonds covered only 10 to 20 percent of the cost, so companies ended up passing most of the bill on to the county and state, which paid between $8.5 million and $39 million for repairs in 2011 alone. This was one of the hidden ways in which the industry transferred its costs to the public.
And small towns were powerless to stop the traffic. “These water trucks would come through town in a caravan and one would run a red light, so they all would,” Blair Zimmerman, a former mayor in the neighboring county of Greene, told me. “They’d go up on sidewalks, they’d drive through residential areas. At three a.m., one traveled at seventy miles an hour right through town.” Incensed, Zimmerman called for a meeting with the gas companies. “I want money to fix my sidewalks, my streets,” he recalled telling them. “I want to hire more police officers for arresting your butts for being where you shouldn’t be.” The corporate representatives paid little attention, he said. “Environmentally, who’s going to clean this up when they leave?” he asked. “Some of these farmers become millionaires, but the majority of the costs are going to be passed on to other people.”
As one of these people, Stacey was dealing with the damage to her car from ruined roads. To register her complaints, Stacey called Range Resources and the company sent out Tony Berardi, an affable land man whose job it was to negotiate between the company and landowners like Stacey—“to put out fires,” he told me. Berardi prided himself in being straight with people: “My motto is, I’m going to show you the ugly, the bad, and the good in that order.” At first, Stacey appreciated his honesty and he appreciated Stacey. He figured that as a single mom she worked hard to keep things together. And Berardi believed he was helping people like Stacey who lived “on the front lines” of the gas rush. That was the term for such places, “frontline communities,” as if they were at war with extractive industries. “Aside from what the common people think, that these companies are out to screw them, they’re not,” he told me. Stacey and her neighbors up and down McAdams took to calling men like Berardi “yes men.” Their eagerness to please was often little more than hot air, they thought. Yet Berardi did manage to get Stacey some money from Range: $1,500 for dust cleanup and car repairs, and $650 for doors in the house that wouldn’t shut anymore.
Range didn’t pay to repair the farmhouse foundation; Stacey couldn’t prove the trucks had caused the damage and she couldn’t afford to do anything about it. It was a matter of hanging on, and that required muscles she was accustomed to using.
Copyright © 2018 by Eliza Griswold
Maps copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey L. Ward