Amity and Prosperity: Erin Brockovich Meets Hillbilly Elegy In A Ruined Locale

I just finished reading poet (and now investigative journalist) Eliza Griswold’s new book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America. I seriously hope it becomes a film. I made my way through all 300+ pages in about two days because I simply couldn’t put the book down.

And I also couldn’t keep my blood pressure from rising. And my rage from escalating. And my fears about all the edenic local spaces being despoiled by corporate greed.

The terrible story that this nonfiction page-turner explores could happen to any of us. In fact, in some way or another, we can be certain that this story is playing out again. Which raises the question, how do we know if our own local water is secretly laced with toxins?

Griswold’s book concerns single mother Stacey Haney, a nurse in the tiny town of Amity in western Pennsylvania. Haney is “a Hoopie”–a resident of the Appalachian hills and coal mining regions–who aims at giving something better to her two children. She thinks she might be seizing that chance for a better life when she signs a contract with Range Resources, a large and successful fracking company. Her nightmare starts then–as does the reader’s–spiraling through a decade of tormented and dying animals, sick and arsenic poisoned children, neighbors with leukemia and bleeding facial sores and stinking, blackened and toxic water.

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We know how this story goes. We’ve followed it from Love Canal to Flint, Michigan. Erin Brockovich showed us a version in Hinkley, California where PG&E dripped hexavalent chromium into the local water supply. Stacey Haney who takes on the energy industry is a hero in her own right and I hope Julia Roberts plays her part if Griswold’s excellent book ever becomes a movie. (And it should.)

But right now Haney’s story is not a movie and there’s no fairy tale ending. At the book’s conclusion Haney is in debt, the cute farmhouse where she stenciled the walls is worthless and uninhabitable, terminally contaminated with toxic sludge, water and fetid, poisonous air. ┬áHer family, if not destroyed is hampered with chronic health and related psychological concerns. Fracking, which we already know causes earthquakes, has rendered the once verdant countryside a wasteland. Most of her neighbors regard Ms. Haney as a pariah who doesn’t play with the team. (The team is undoubtedly Range Resources–the source of tainted water and air, but gives to the 4-H kids and enables larger land owners to lease their lands for enormous profit. Many of the community’s citizens wear red Range caps.) Stacey Haney gets a small and undisclosed settlement but Range Resources largely prevails.It’s just sad.

Griswold’s book raises at least two primary points. The first is obvious; corporations and most particularly corporations in the conventional energy field (read coal, gas, natural gas) rape the land and feed its citizens poison without much real public oversight. These companies are aided quite obviously by the political party in charge and the current inhabitant of the White House. But they also have more subtle assistance. Federal agencies, state government and local authorities of all political persuasions who are entrusted with the public safety accept the ruin of Stacey’s family as a kind of necessary if dark compromise. Stacey and her advocates have little authority. It’s nearly impossible for private individuals with very limited finances to fight companies with nearly unlimited access of funds and power. We are all at risk (and ought to pay more attention to the quality of our local water).

But there’s another aspect to Griswold’s account. She writes about what it’s like to live in a small and impoverished region and to feel that anyone with money or power or aspirations pretty much thinks of your locality as unimportant–a “flyover” region. We all love the idea of local living but some local spaces get more respect than others. Stacey Haney and her family feel that for decades they provided, at great personal risk, the coal that powered urban America. Stacey’s father was a Vietnam Vet who only recently has received compensation for his multivalent wounds. He lost his job in the steel mills. Stacey and her neighbors signed on initially with Range because they had more faith in corporations than they did in government and because they thought at last they might get some cash back for the resources they gave so freely to the rest of the world. But by the end of the book Stacey Haney comes to believe that there’s little difference between government entities and corporate consortiums. Neither agency cares much about her and as a result there’s little space for her children to exceed her own experience. In desperation Stacey votes for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein while most of her acquaintances support Trump. There is deep irony in the fact that Stacey’s community opts for the representation of those most opposed to public support. One wants to argue with them. But, Stacey Haney and those like her are transformed from hopeful idealists anxious to engage with the world to bitter cynics. Griswold’s narrative provides the best explanation I’ve yet to read about “country”/”hillbilly” animus and hopelessness.

In the end though Haney’s situation offers the warning of a morality tale. All of us who prize and depend upon clean air and drinking water are at risk. All of us who want real tomatoes purchased from real farmers whose names we know, all of us who want to live somehow authentically in some rare corner are under siege. It’s Stacey in Amity and Flint’s water today but tomorrow?

Even as I write this there are rollbacks planned of regulations that protect streams from chemical run-off. Pipes are already installed to carry more natural gas and multinational oil companies prepare to dig more wells off of our coastline. The Central Coast of California, featured in the early days of oil drilling (masterfully portrayed in the film There Will Be Blood), is still pressured to allow more drilling, more underground pipes and a dangerous oil train running from the coast to the inland refineries.

To be a locavore is about more than how many miles our food travels. It’s about protecting what’s local. It’s telling a story that it seems like no one wants to hear. It’s asking questions about local cultures. Stacey Haney is a hero, whether Hollywood makes the movie or not.

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