Dimock in the Limelight

  • Susan Phillips

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Bill Lazore, a chief of the Onondaga Nation from upstate New York, offers a blessing as Dimock resident Julie Sautner looks on.


The little town of Dimock has become the symbolic front line for the battle over natural gas drilling. It’s known far and wide as the place where people can set their tap water on fire.  State regulators say that’s because drilling caused methane to leak into water wells. No matter which side of the drilling debate they’re on, residents find their little hamlet can now be a tough place to live.
Before fracking became a national story, Dimock never got visited by big crowds riding in from New York City.
But earlier this month, more than one hundred people from the Big Apple caravanned to the northeastern Pennsylvania town from New York City.  In a media-friendly event, the visitors delivered hundreds of gallons of fresh water to 11 families who say their water is not safe to drink, thanks to natural gas drilling.
Crowd: “Let’s get side by side all of us. Everybody grab the hose, here it comes. It’s coming, here it comes, ohhh it feels so cool. It’s a boy!!”
Two years ago, the state had ordered Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston-based driller, to deliver fresh water to affected Dimock residents. The Department of Environmental Protection determined that Cabot’s drilling operations had fouled the water of 19 households.  But the state recently ruled that Cabot’s offer to install free filtration systems means that the company could stop supplying water for drinking and bathing.
So a group of anti-fracking activists from New York brought clean water to the residents.
They held up a long hose attached to a tanker truck, which poured water into a large white container sitting on a front lawn, called a “water buffalo.” It looks like a milk jug, and is about the size of a tool shed.
For the past two years, water deliveries had come from Cabot Oil and Gas to the home of Craig and Julie Sautner. The DEP found the Sautner’s water had high levels of methane, which were dangerous enough to pose a fire hazard.
State environmental regulators say methane leaked into the groundwater through poorly constructed natural gas wells. Now the affected residents have the attention of celebrities like actor Mark Ruffalo, who lives on top of the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York.
Holding a muddy jar of water that came from the one of the resident’s wells, Ruffalo spoke to the crowd.
“We’re not Republicans we’re not Democrats,” said Ruffalo.  We’re not independents, we’re not anti-fracking, we’re not pro-fracking, we’re Americans. And our water is the most essential thing to all of our lives and we have to protect it and we have to be generous to the people who have lost this very very basic privilege.”
Dimock is home to about 1,400 people. But not all of them cheered Ruffalo’s visit. In fact, some residents held a counter-protest at a neighbor’s house the same day Ruffalo spoke. Pro-drilling residents like Bill Aeillo say the water is safe to drink and that Ruffalo’s water delivery is unnecessary.
“We have been very pleased to have natural gas come to our community,” said Aeillo at the counter-protest.  “But we have been the victims of a continued deluge of completely inaccurate reporting about the water in our community.”
Aiello’s water was never contaminated by drilling. He says the residents…while the state continues to prohibit Cabot from drilling in the area, some residents cannot earn needed royalties. He called the water delivery a “farce.”
But Ray Kemble disagrees. He’s a Dimock resident who says his water is not safe to drink. He uses 600 a gallon water buffalo for showering and washing his dishes. He drinks bottled water.
“It’s really difficult, people just take it all for granted. They go home they turn the faucet on. They go home, they flush the toilet. They go home, take a shower. You want to go home you wash your car. We can’t.”
Kemble says life has changed in other ways as well. Neighbors are angry with him for rejecting Cabot’s offer to install a filtration system.  He says he doesn’t trust the company to do the job right.  Since then, he says, he’s had garbage strewn on his lawn and water jugs destroyed with axes.
Kemble and ten other families have sued Cabot, while other affected residents have had the filtration systems installed. Some think those involved in the lawsuit are just angling for a large corporate payout.
Perhaps Kemble himself exemplifies Dimock’s tug-of-war best. He used to be a car mechanic. But he says he lost customers after becoming an outspoken drilling opponent. So what does he do to pay his bills now?
He drives a water truck for the gas companies.

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