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Actor Mark Ruffalo holds up a jug of water drawn from a well in Dimock, Pa. Ruffalo spoke at a rally this week after helping deliver fresh water to affected residents.

Dimock, PA: "Ground Zero" In The Fight Over Fracking


Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Norma Fiorentino is one of several Dimock residents challenging DEP's decision to allow Cabot Oil and Gas to halt water deliveries.

Two facts about Dimock, Susquehanna County are indisputable:

  • Heavy concentrations of methane contaminated the drinking water of several dozen families.
  • The town has become “ground zero” in the battle over whether or not hydraulic fracturing is safe.

After that, things get a bit murky.

Here’s what happened in Dimock: right around the time Cabot Oil and Gas began  drilling natural gas wells in the community, several residents began experiencing severe problems with their water supplies. The most high-profile event happened on January 1, 2009, when Norma Fiorentino’s back yard water well blew up.

ProPublica profiled the incident:

Norma Fiorentino’s drink­ing water well was a time bomb. For weeks, work­ers in her small north­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia town had been plumb­ing nat­ural gas deposits from a drilling rig a few hun­dred yards away. They cracked the earth and pumped in flu­ids to force the gas out. Some­how, stray gas worked into tiny crevasses in the rock, leak­ing upward into the aquifer and slip­ping qui­etly into Fiorentino’s well. Then, accord­ing to the state’s work­ing the­ory, a motor­ized pump turned on in her well house, flicked a spark and caused a New Year’s morn­ing blast that tossed aside a con­crete slab weigh­ing sev­eral thou­sand pounds.

Fiorentino wasn’t home at the time, so it’s dif­fi­cult to know exactly what hap­pened. But after­ward, state offi­cials found methane, the largest com­po­nent of nat­ural gas, in her drink­ing water. If the fumes that built up in her well house had col­lected in her base­ment, the explo­sion could have killed her.

In 2009, fifteen Dimock families with contaminated water filed a federal lawsuit against Cabot. The company has wracked up more than 130 drilling violations at its Dimock wells, but insists the methane migration in Dimock water wells is naturally occurring, pointing to tests taken after drilling had been halted in the area.

Under the Rendell Administration, DEP cracked down hard on Cabot. The agency fined the company $120,000 for the methane migration incidents, barred it from drilling within the Susquehanna County community, and ordered it to foot the bill for a water pipeline bringing fluid to Dimock residents. Cabot agreed to pay for temporary water supplies at the affected homes.

In the ini­tial Con­sent Order and Agree­ment between DEP and Cabot, dated Novem­ber 4, 2009, the agency deter­mined, “the pres­ence of dis­solved methane and/or com­bustible gas in the 10 Affected Water Sup­plies occurred within six months of com­ple­tion of drilling of one or more of the Cabot Wells. As such, Cabot is pre­sumed to be respon­si­ble for the pol­lu­tion to these 10 Affected Water Supplies.”

The DEP forced Cabot to provide potable water to ten households, stop all drilling in the area, improve its’ casing procedures, and submit a plan to permanently restore residential water supplies.

In 2010, the COA between Cabot and DEP was revised twice. The final agree­ment, reached in Decem­ber, is the doc­u­ment dic­tat­ing the agency’s cur­rent stance. In it, Cabot makes it clear the com­pany dis­agrees with DEP’s find­ings, but agrees to the terms of the agreement. The Decem­ber 2010 doc­u­ment laid out harsh penal­ties for the driller. It required Cabot to pay the impacted fam­i­lies set­tle­ments worth twice their prop­erty val­ues, a total Hanger said exceeded $4 mil­lion. But the doc­u­ment did not include water test­ing as a cri­te­ria for Cabot to stop pro­vid­ing clean water to the impacted families.

Instead, Cabot had to ful­fill the fol­low­ing obligations:

  • deposit the set­tle­ment money into escrow accounts
  • notify the fam­i­lies and DEP that the money was available
  • install a “gas mit­i­ga­tion device” (a water fil­ter) at each residence

In Octo­ber, Cabot informed DEP it had met all these require­ments, and asked for per­mis­sion to stop deliv­er­ing water to the Dimock fam­i­lies. The company had installed filters in some households, but a group of residents still engaged in litigation against the company refused the filters, saying they would not adequately treat the water.

Still, Act­ing Deputy Sec­re­tary Scott Perry approved the request, and Cabot stopped pro­vid­ing water on Decem­ber 1, 2011. In a let­ter to the Cham­bers­burg Pub­lic Opin­ion, Sec­re­tary Mike Krancer defended the deci­sion. “We were guided by a legal agree­ment dat­ing to the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion,” he wrote. “The agreement…required Cabot to sat­isfy spe­cific water pro­vi­sion oblig­a­tions and meet cer­tain requirements….Cabot sat­is­fied those require­ments, and the law, in turn, requires DEP to fol­low its obligations.”

In a state­ment, Cabot said it “con­tin­ues to offer to install DEP-approved water treat­ment sys­tems to affected res­i­dents… All of the home­own­ers who accepted the methane treat­ment sys­tems in Dimock have seen a 96%-98% reduc­tion in methane con­cen­tra­tions.” But sev­eral fam­i­lies continue to refuse Cabot’s offers, say­ing their water has more than just high levels of methane, and the fil­tra­tion sys­tems will not remove harm­ful chemicals.

Is the water safe? While DEP has not been con­duct­ing tests, Cabot has pro­vided water sam­ples to state laboratories. In early December, 2011, the fed­eral Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency reviewed the data, and initially found the water “does not indi­cate an imme­di­ate health threat to well water users.” In a state­ment, the agency said it “will con­tinue to review the lat­est infor­ma­tion,” not­ing it had received more than 300 pages of well water data from Dimock residents.

The EPA followed up on its promise and in January, 2012, the agency informed the residents that it would provide water to four households and test the water at more than 60 homes. The EPA said further evaluation of water tests showed dangerous levels of barium, arsenic and other “hazardous substances.” Both Cabot and the DEP have criticized the EPA’s decision to step into the Dimock controversy. Michael Krancer, the head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection wrote a scathing letter to the EPA.  Cabot released a report saying federal regulators misconstrued the lab results. 

The EPA tested drinking water from 64 households in the village of Dimock between January and June, 2012. Since January, the EPA has also been providing four homes with fresh water due to concerns over initial testing results.

On July 25, 2012, the EPA announced it had completed its testing of drinking water supplies in the Susquehanna County village, and would halt its water deliveries. The EPA says it did find hazardous levels of barium, arsenic or manganese in the water supplies of five households. But the Agency says treatment systems could reduce the amount of toxins to safe levels.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin says no more action is needed to protect the public health of Dimock residents, with regard to drinking water.

“The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action,” said Garvin through a press release. “Throughout EPA’s work in Dimock, the Agency has used the best available scientific data to provide clarity to Dimock residents and address their concerns about the safety of their drinking water.”

Some residents have been relying on donations from anti-drilling groups for clean water. But others say the town’s well water is clean, and have grown weary of the publicity.

In May, 2016 a federal public health report on Dimock’s much-publicized water woes found threatening levels of chemicals in 27 private water wells, and explosive levels of methane in 17 private water wells during a six-month period in 2012. The results were based on the samples taken in 2012, while a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the area was in place. The analysis was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and did not address the origin of the contamination, or whether gas drilling was or was not the cause. The chemicals include cancer-causing levels of arsenic in 13 wells. Other substances include potentially toxic levels of cadmium, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, potassium, sodium and 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether.

Of the original 15 families who filed a federal lawsuit, all but two settled with the company in 2012. On March 10, 2016 a federal jury found Cabot Oil and Gas negligent for polluting their water wells and awarded the two families a total of $4.24 million. Cabot says it will appeal the ruling.

To read more on the EPA’s investigation in Dimock, click here:

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