The natural gas boom in Pennsylvania promises cheaper, cleaner burning fuel, good jobs, and the possibility that the U.S. could become independent of foreign oil. But what are the costs? The tiny village of Dimock, Pennsylvania, home to about 1,500 people, has some of the best producing Marcellus wells in the state. It is now famous worldwide. But not for the reasons some of the townsfolk would like. The name Dimock has become synonymous with flaming taps and everything that could possibly go wrong when the gas drillers come to town. But the fight over Dimock’s water and reputation has divided the town.Cabot Oil and Gas. Others are angry that the publicity has the potential of driving down home values, and insist the water damage is overblown and limited to a few households.
To get to Dimock, you drive through forested mountains, past picturesque dairy farms and come to one blinking yellow light at a crossroads of Route 29 and Route 3023. A post office and eyeglass shop sit on the corner. GPS and iPhones don’t work in this part of Pennsylvania. Before 9/11 created new security rules, most people here didn’t have a street address. They didn’t need one. There was a time neighbors all seemed to get along. But not anymore.
A Friendship Split By Drilling
Retired school teacher Victoria Switzer says gas drilling poisoned her water with methane and drilling chemicals. But she says some of her neighbors have turned against her.
“They all want to be like the couple of families that got rich,” says Switzer. ”They want to be like a Beverly Hillbilly or shaleionaire. It’s about the money. They say, ‘I want my well! I want my well!’ They’re not worried about our water, but they want their well.”
Switzer says Cabot Oil and Gas, the company that came to drill here six years ago, refuses to take responsibility for the damage to water supplies. Since the contamination surfaced in 2009, state regulators have forbidden the company from drilling or completing any new wells in the town. And Switzer says some in Dimock have pointed the finger at her, and the ten other families who are suing the gas company.
But not every Dimock resident blames Cabot for the bad water.
Anne Teel is Switzer’s neighbor. They used to be friends. Now they don’t speak. Teel says it’s not so much the water that’s been poisoned, it’s relationships between neighbors.
“I don’t like to have to drive down the street and have neighbors who won’t wave to me,” says Teel. ”I don’t like to go to the grocery store and have neighbors who won’t say hello to me. That’s not the way I live. But that’s unfortunately what’s happened because of this.”
A Dream Home Denied
Dimock’s own gas boom began back in 2006 when the landmen started knocking on doors eager to purchase the residents’ mineral rights and drill for natural gas. Victoria Switzer was in the midst of building her dream home.
“It was a beautiful fall day and I was sitting on the steps of the trailer dreaming about what a wonderful life I had,” says Switzer. ”And this man appeared, friendly, with a twinkle in his eye and he said, ‘Beautiful day isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And I like to say that was the last honest thing I heard from a gas man.”
Jim Grimsley, another Dimock resident, remembers the day as well.
“We thought we were getting a pretty good deal at the time,” says Grimsley. “To be honest, the landman as they call them, the guy that knocks on your door, he was a good talker, he was pretty sharp. I think he took his lessons from a California used car salesman. But we signed.”
One thing everyone does agree on: The landmen were not completely honest. Cabot bought mineral rights in Dimock for $25 an acre. Later, similar deals in nearby towns were going for $4,000 to $5,000 an acre.
“We were sitting on Manhattan,” says Switzer. “And they gave us trinkets and beads.”
But that’s where agreement on natural gas drilling and relations with Cabot seem to end.
Here’s where the residents’ experiences diverge from one another.
Switzer says after the drilling began, she noticed changes in the quality of her well water. It’s been foamy and gray, she says, with an unidentifiable smell. It’s turned orange. At other times, it’s kind of resembled alka seltzer. The changes come and go. She says private water tests have shown ethylene glycol and high levels of methane. Switzer says she tried to work with Cabot, but it was all for naught.
“They were arrogant, mean, and they said go ahead, sue us, you’ll lose,” says Switzer.
So Switzer joined the lawsuit, because of what she calls an uneven fight.
“It’s like two playing boards,” says Switzer. ”We’re playing the game of Life and they’re playing Monopoly. You can’t mix those games together. It’s a whole different agenda they have. And it has nothing to do with accountability, responsibility, or doing the right thing other than increasing their profit margin.”
Alert the Media
Frustrated, Switzer also decided to call a local newspaper.
“I realized, well, the gas company wasn’t helping me, my elected officials weren’t helping me, DEP wasn’t helping me, but boy, the media really got things done.”
Soon, television cameras from as far away as Germany and Japan arrived at Dimock’s doorstep. And some neighbors, like Anne Teel, said the coverage was completely unfair. Although Teel says she, too, had some problems with her drinking water, she says Cabot was extremely responsive.
“I thought that if you worked with the gas companies and let them fix your issue, they fixed it,” says Teel. “And I was told that because of that, I was on their payroll and I was Cabot’s lackey. And we are not.”
Teel, Switzer and Grimsley all sold their mineral rights, and they’ve all received royalties from gas drilling. Switzer says she’s not against natural gas extraction. But she says the resulting bad water has been a large price to pay.
Grimsley and Teel say the focus on bad water means the media has ignored the economic benefits of gas drilling.
Teel is a member of the local Elk Lake school board. The district has two producing wells on school property, which Teel says brings in between $40,000 and $60,000 dollars a month in royalties.
“It’s allowed us as a school district to not raise property taxes,” says Teel. “Pennsylvania has cut school district budgets in the last couple of years down to the bare bones. And school districts across the county are suffering and cutting out sports and arts programs. We have been very lucky because of the gas money.”
Cabot has eight wells on Teel’s property. She says her water was also affected by drilling early on. It caused her pipes to clog up with sediment. But she says Cabot treated her well, and helped fix her problem.
Other residents say Cabot was no help, and state environmental regulators betrayed them.
DEP To the Rescue (Or Not)
Nine months after a resident’s water well exploded in January 2009, the state Department of Environmental Protection cited Cabot for faulty well construction. DEP said Cabot’s work contributed to methane migration into the aquifer.
One ordered Cabot to provide residents with water. And a year later, in November 2010, the state promised to pipe in treated water from a nearby town. Officials said they would force Cabot to compensate the state for the costs, even if it meant suing the company. But then a month later, that plan was axed. Instead, the DEP negotiated a financial settlement directly with Cabot, which included the installation of a water filtration system.
Those suing Cabot, like Switzer, rejected the deal as insufficient. Anne Teel and her husband accepted it. This created another rift.
“I’ve been in meetings where some of these people who are against Cabot challenged us and said, ‘Well if everything was so great with your water, how dare you take that money from DEP’,” recalls Teel. “Now if someone came to you with a check and said, ‘This is a safety net should anything go wrong with your water,’ would you not take it?”
Teel says none of her water tests have ever revealed chemicals that would threaten her health. And she is especially angry at what she says is how the media overplays the situation, focusing on the problem of a small number of residents, rather than giving the entire picture.
“The media does that with a lot of stories,” says Teel. “It’s not just this. But the problem is if you live amongst it, and wherever you go somebody asks you how bad is your water, and why do you stay there and aren’t you afraid your daughter is going to get sick?”
Teel says those in the lawsuit should seek their remedy in court, not in the press. Jim Grimsley, a neighbor down the road, shares Teel’s anger at the media. It really hit home for him recently during a phone conversation with his daughter who was planning on bringing her kids to Dimock for a visit, and was concerned about what she read in her local paper in Florida.
“My daughter called me up last summer, and she said, ‘Dad is it OK for the kids to come up there?’” says Grimsley. “And that bothered me, that bothered me really really bad. I said, ‘Laura, I don’t care what it says in the newspaper, it’s not like that, and I do drink the water here all the time’.”
Grimsley promised to give his grandchildren bottled water, and they did visit.
Restoring Dreams, Healing Wounds
But Victoria Switzer argues that the issue is not media hype, it’s doing what’s right. And she says because of Cabot, she will never trust the water that runs from her tap again.
“They need to restore my dreams,” says Switzer. ”I want what they took from me. If I had to do this over again, this home, and I’m not talking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars on materials, but what we put into it. I want that.”
For his part, Jim Grimsley says he doesn’t know if some water wells are still tainted or not, and he doesn’t know if Cabot is responsible. But he argues that, either way, the damage to the community is done. And, here’s the crux, he says: Bad press has driven down property values.
“There’s people… they’re saying ‘I can’t sell my house if I wanted to now because nobody wants to move to Dimock,” says Grimsley.
And he doesn’t think the bad blood among neighbors will change any time soon.
“There’s people that are calling each other names,” says Grimsley. “It’s going to take a long long time for those wounds to heal. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.”
Cabot says its drilling operation did not pollute Dimock’s aquifer. Company spokesman George Stark says high levels of methane have always existed in Dimock’s water wells. Their one mistake, says Stark, is not conducting pre-drill tests for methane. State environmental regulators have cited Cabot Oil and Gas 109 times for violations in the village of Dimock since 2009. In November, 2011, the DEP allowed Cabot to stop providing clean water to residents along Carter Road.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped into the controversy earlier this year, agreeing to provide water to three households and conduct its own water testing. The federal agency has collected water samples from about 60 households. So far, it has released results from 11 households. The EPA says it has found nothing in those tests that should prevent anyone from drinking the water. But scientists consulted by the residents themselves dispute that conclusion.
In the meantime, residents like Teel and Grimsley are eager to restore their town’s reputation. Dotted across Dimock today are signs that read: “Dimock Proud, Where the Water IS Clean, and the People are Friendly.”