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.
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. In March 2017 a federal judge vacated the award, saying the it bore little or no relationship to the evidence presented at the 2016 trial. In September 2017, the two families settled for an undisclosed amount.
To read more on the EPA’s investigation in Dimock, click here: http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/states/pa.html