Accidents of geology, larger than history, older than scripture: continents colliding, seas encroaching and receding, peat bogs incubating their treasures like a vast subterranean kiln. In the time before recorded time, Pennsylvania was booby-trapped.— Jennifer Haigh's novel Heat and Light
At the conclusion of Sydney Pollack’s 1975 classic thriller Three Days of the Condor, a CIA honcho played by Cliff Robertson lectures a CIA whistleblower played by Robert Redford, telling him that when it gets cold and dark the American people will want the government to get them heat and light by any means necessary. Now that we are living in that future, it’s obvious the American people have not given a blank check to the government. Instead, there is fierce debate over how we should obtain our energy.
That debate is a big part of Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel, Heat and Light (Ecco), an epic tale of both smalltown American life and the devastation caused by fracking. On page four, Haigh unveils the spirit of what’s to come in a trio of quick rimshots.
- “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”
- A wooden tower that crowned the state’s first oil rig: “The tower resembled a hangman’s gallows.”
- The inherent violence of the men who control the oil and gas industry: “Before he shot the president, John Wilkes Booth came to Petrolia and drilled a duster.”
Haigh sets her story in the town of Bakerton, which is a fictional place but one she knows like the back of her hand. She grew up in the western Pennsylvania town of Barnesboro, a coal town northeast of Pittsburgh. Haigh has seen much of what she describes–the good life of a semi-suburbia powered by union jobs and steady work and then the empty pot at the end of that rainbow–the closing of the mines, widespread unemployment, and a ravaged tax base.
Her literary inventions ring true– a meth epidemic, a new prison that saw five hundred people line up for sixty jobs and is already twenty per cent over capacity, a palpable sense of doom (“the foregone conclusion that every worthwhile thing has already happened.”) A stunning variety of characters, from prison guard to the CEO of Dark Elephant Energy, from barfly to farmer to adulterous pastor, are introduced, fully fleshed out and then seamlessly connected, giving the reader a tangible feeling of actually living in Bakerton.
The imperfect ways of dealing with local life–church, bars, watching television, sex, drugs, and rock & roll are presented with an empathetic skepticism. Each may offer temporary relief but no escape from the reality of being boxed in.
Rural Pennsylvania doesn't fascinate the world, not generally. But cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire. A burnt offering to the collective need.
Fracking is the latest in a long line of Pennsylvania abuses of nature and people–coal, oil, steel, mushroom farming, Three Mile Island (“Of the six thousand indicators on the control panel, seven hundred fifty are alarms”). Haigh presents fracking as unwanted in-laws, always underfoot, always causing problems–the visceral, constant attack of the noise of the rigs, the stealthy encroachments of poisoned water, the choices that emerge–turning your land over to the tender mercies of the fossil fuel industry, risking your life on a drill rig to feed your family, a restaurant refusing to buy milk from a farm whose land is being fracked.
There are no soft jobs on a drill rig. A mud motor weighs six hundred pounds. The hoisting system uses steel rope. The men yank and drag and push and pull. Twelve hours a day they hump and heave. Some work injured, numbed by painkillers. After twelve hours they'd rather sleep than drink or eat or talk to their families. With a few youthful exceptions, they would rather sleep than fuck.
Heat and Light is notable for the way it casts the rig workers who actually do the fracking, all from out of town, as victims right along with the locals.
“The easiest way to kill yourself is simply missing a step,” Haigh writes. “He has seen up close what a three-story fall can do to a body. He’d do anything to wipe that picture from his mind…..It’s a truth most people never have to learn, that the human body is simply a bag of blood.”
With all the problems fracking creates in Heat and Light, a local movement against it inevitably emerges and Haigh uses the device of an activist professor to get across basic facts:
“A million gallons of water pumped into the ground at unimaginably high pressure…Fracking fluid isn’t just water. It’s mixed with sand and whatever chemical cocktail they think is going to work.”
Yet that same professor also puts limits on thinking about what’s possible, admitting defeat by saying “Our role is to raise questions, Cassandra sounding the alarm. That’s all we can do.”
Actually, we can do a lot more than raise questions, as the battle over oil and water at Standing Rock has shown. Dave Archambault II, tribal chief of the Standing Rock Sioux, described one of the obstacles to getting to that point in a recent interview with Wesley Elliot: “It’s really hard to not think about yourself, because you’re struggling, you’re trying to survive for yourself. It creates individual interest.”
It’s individual interest that drives much of what takes place in Heat and Light–the stress over who gets a job, how much someone gets for their drilling rights, the confusion and prejudice that surfaces in a town that’s disintegrating.
Archambault explains the mindset necessary to overcome that: “You have to say I’m not worried about myself any more, I’m worried about what’s going to happen in a hundred years, and what I do today, can that make a difference for those children and their children who aren’t even born yet, and are they going to have a world to live on.”
The defense of water at Standing Rock shows that those fine sentiments are far from abstract and, as it turns out, that mindset is alive and well in Heat and Light country, but not in the form of fiction. For instance, there’s Grant Township (population 700), in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, which has been fighting for the past three years to prevent the use of injection wells in the township. Such wells, which pump fracking wastewater into the ground, corrupt the local water table while spreading cancer-causing chemicals (by federal law, fracking companies do not have to reveal what chemicals they use). Injection wells have also been linked to earthquakes in several states.
“We’re tired of being told by corporations and our so-called environmental regulatory agencies that we can’t stop this injection well!” says township supervisor Stacy Long. “We’re being threatened by a corporation with a history of permit violations, and that corporation wants to dump toxic frack wastewater into our Township.”
The corporation in question, Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE), sued Grant Township in 2014 to overturn a law that banned the use of injection wells. In the lawsuit, PGE claims it has a right to inject fracking wastewater within the Township and argues that the local Community Bill of Rights ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates the corporate “person’s” civil rights sanctified by the Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United decision.
In October 2015, a judge invalidated parts of the local law, saying that the Township went beyond its authority in banning injection wells. In November 2015, residents responded by voting to change the form of local government by adopting a Home Rule Charter. The ban on injection wells was reinstated; the PGE suit against Grant Township is still ongoing.
In May 2016, Grant Township supervisors passed a first-in-the-nation law which says that if the courts fail to protect the community, the people have the right to enforce their Charter through nonviolent direct action. The ordinance also prohibits “any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”
Grant Township isn’t just fighting back, it’s struggling to work out a vision of a different future, one that isn’t about a maze of regulations which may at best possibly reduce harm, but a future under a banner of “do no harm at all.”
Chad Nicholson, Pennsylvania organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, described to me the questions being raised in Grant Township as “Do we have to put another energy system in place? What would a sustainable energy system look like? What if we put our tax dollars into something new?”
Grant Township is not alone. Over the past ten years, over two hundred communities in ten states have enacted laws which allow localities to make their own decisions in the face of corporate plunderers. The pushback to such laws from the energy industry often comes in the form of new state laws–in some cases written by the corporations themselves–which block any move to prevent oil and gas extraction. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, currently running for governor, unilaterally removed anti-fracking citizen-sponsored initiatives that were already on county ballots in 2015 and then did it again in 2016 with the approval of the Ohio Supreme Court.
When asked what the movement for community rights will look like in five years, Nicholson replied that it will likely expand beyond environmental concerns to issues such as police accountability and the right of communities to define themselves as immigrant sanctuaries.
As we move into 2017, the Home Rule charter in Grant Township is still the law of the land there. “The stakes are high,” Chad Nicholson says, noting that “there is the possibility of lawsuits against individual elected officials. The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association has threatened to have criminal charges filed if they can find district attorneys who will do it.” Finding compliant DAs will probably not prove difficult. Pennsylvania and New York have already allowed their Attorneys General to assist corporations in suing local communities which disobey laws which get in the way of corporations.
This is war and, as Grant Township Supervisor Jon Perry says: “Sides need to be picked. Should a polluting corporation have the right to inject toxic waste, or should a community have the right to protect itself?”
Picking sides gives us a chance to find a solid place to stand, regroup, and keep our heads above the rising waters that threaten to engulf us. As Ron Rash, professor of Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, writes in a November 18 New York Times op-ed piece:
“In a year dominated by political frenzy, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., was one of the few stories to grab the headlines away from the presidential race. A handwritten warning posted above a drinking fountain became a national disgrace.
“Yet how many Americans know or care that a similar ‘do not drink the water’ warning is above every drinking fountain in the Knott County Opportunity Center in Kentucky, which houses a community college, a Head Start program and the county library — and that the warning has been necessary for a decade?”
Rash then connects the dots:
“…At a time of such national divisiveness, Americans can find common ground in demanding safe drinking water for all of our citizens. The warning signs remain posted in the rural, almost totally white Kentucky city of Hindman, but the signs also remain up in the largely black Michigan city of Flint. Hindman and Flint are united in their misery. Perhaps safe drinking water can be one of the first issues around which we can begin to reunify our fragmented nation.”
This provides one answer to the questions raised by Jennifer Haigh and Dave Archambault II: How do we embrace a vision that goes beyond ourselves? How can we be more than victims? What can we do? It turns out that there’s a lot. For more information, just Google “Standing Rock” or check out the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund at celdf.org.
Lee Ballinger has a new book out, Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing. It’s available as a free download ebook at loveandwarbook.com. To check out the Love and War podcast, go to: http://feeds.feedburner.com/Lo veWarPodcast