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Residents Divided About PA’s Agreement With Gas Drilling Company Over Water Contamination

Residents of Dimock, Pa., are surprised—and in some cases upset—by a settlement that state environmental regulators reached last week with Cabot Oil & Gas, which the Department of Environmental Protection says contaminated local water from its gas drilling operations.

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Dimock resident Julie Sautner is seen in her basement with her water filtration system in the winter of 2009. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

A version of this story was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Residents of Dimock, Pa., said they were surprised -- and in some cases upset -- by the settlement that state environmental regulators reached last week with Cabot Oil & Gas, which the Department of Environmental Protection says contaminated 18 water wells with methane from its gas drilling operations.

The homeowners were told in September that the DEP was going to provide them with fresh water by building a pipeline from a nearby water treatment facility. A state infrastructure fund would have fronted the $11.8 million cost of the project, and the DEP was going to seek reimbursement from Cabot.

But last week the DEP announced that the pipeline project was dead and that Cabot had agreed instead to give the homeowners $4.1 million and provide treatment systems for their well water. The 19 families who draw water from the wells will be offered payments equal to twice the value of their homes, with a minimum payment of $50,000. The settlement also gives the DEP $500,000 to cover the cost of the investigation.

Some of the residents are outraged by the change in plans, even though they say they will accept Cabot's offer.

"They destroy your life, your water, and for compensation they wave a little bit of money and expect you to take it and abandon your home," said Julie Sautner, who says her well was the first to be contaminated, in September 2008. "Just take the money and shut up. This is America, and I never expected this."

Sautner and several other homeowners filed a federal lawsuit against Cabot last year, seeking damages for their losses and a fund to cover the cost of any medical treatment that might be caused by the contamination. They also want to stop the company from any further drilling in the area. The new settlement is not expected to affect this separate civil suit.

Sautner said Cabot installed a treatment system in her home two years ago. She said she later disconnected it because it didn't work.

But Loren Salsman, who is not part of the lawsuit, said the methane separator Cabot installed at his house works fine. He said his well has always had methane, which sometimes occurs naturally in well water, but that the levels increased as a result of drilling in August 2009. He said he's not concerned about the methane, because it is not toxic and evaporates out of water.

"I was thrilled with the decision," Salsman said, speaking of the settlement.

George Stark, a Cabot spokesperson, said the treatment systems the company is offering now are more sophisticated than those it installed in the past. He said the systems can be retooled based on the nature of a specific well's contamination to remove the methane as well as any other impurities that may be in the water.

"I believe the new systems we'll be installing are fully functional," he said.

Stark said he did not know how long the systems usually last, or whether Cabot will pay for maintenance or replacement if they don't work.

Michael Smith, a DEP spokesperson, said in an e-mail that the department decided to settle with Cabot because there was "wide opposition" to the pipeline and it likely would never have been built.

"This settlement is intended to give the affected families some options for how they can address their particular situation," he said.

A group of pro-drilling residents and business owners in the area, who started a campaign called Enough Already, organized a vocal opposition to the project, saying it was an intrusive solution that would jeopardize water supplies for the neighboring town of Montrose, where water for the pipeline would have come from. Some of the businesses that participated in the campaign work with Cabot. One, run by Guy Parrish, has been making water deliveries to the affected families in Dimock and will be installing the new treatment systems.

Eric Brunges, manager at Brunges Commercial Supply, said the group was "all for the people in Dimock having good water" but worried that the project would run over budget and that taxpayers would bear the costs.

Brunges said the group met with Cabot to get information about the pipeline but received no money from the company and made its decisions independently.

Homeowner Julie Sautner said she will get about $250,000 from Cabot in the settlement. She said the county tax assessor's records say her home is valued at about $130,000 but that she recently got an independent assessment that valued it at around $190,000.

Residents say their land values have plummeted since the water became contaminated.

"There is no property value here no more," said Norma Fiorentino, whose well exploded on New Year's Day, 2009. Fiorentino said she'll be getting $228,928. "Nobody wants to build a house where there's no water."

In November of last year, the DEP found Cabot responsible for polluting what the agency later determined to be 18 wells. It said faulty drilling practices allowed methane, the primary component of natural gas, to leak into the aquifer. Cabot did not agree with the department's findings but agreed to fulfill the obligations laid out in the settlement.

Methane is not toxic, but it can build up in wells and cause explosions. Tests done later by a private firm found toxic chemicals in some of the Dimock wells, but those chemicals were not scientifically linked to Cabot's drilling.

The DEP has halted Cabot's drilling activities around the affected wells, but the agreement establishes a path for the company to resume those operations in April.

"The agreement lays out a clear timeline on how Cabot must test pressure readings at the gas well and levels of combustible gas in nearby water wells," Smith said by e-mail. "If gas levels persist in the water supplies, the company must properly vent the water wells so they do not post a danger to residents or property in the area. Ultimately, the company must demonstrate that their gas wells are no longer allowing methane to migrate and contaminate nearby water supplies."

The families have up to 85 days to decide whether or not to accept the offer. Those who decline have until Dec. 31, 2012 to change their minds. After that date, the money reverts to Cabot.

The agreement allows Cabot to stop delivering the potable water it has been providing to residents, whether or not a family agrees to the offer.

In a separate letter sent after the settlement, Sautner and Fiorentino said Cabot offered to pay them immediately if they released the company from any legal claims, such as the federal civil suit.

"People are desperate but not that desperate," Sautner said. "Give up our lawsuit? I mean, we've been working on this for two years now. What are they, crazy?"

Nolan Ely, another homeowner, said he is outraged by the agreement between Cabot and the DEP. He said the amount he'll get, which he wouldn't disclose, wasn't much more than the minimum and not enough to pay for a lifetime supply of water, should the treatment system not work.

Ely is in an unusual position, because until recently he worked as a heavy-equipment operator for Cabot. Two years ago he was working on a well just hundreds of feet from his own property, which he had leased to the company, when he said drillers hit an unexpected pocket of gas.

"I had to hit the emergency button and shut down the operation," he said. "Probably a month or so after that we started having problems with our water. And I begged Cabot to come check our water, and they didn't."

Ely later joined the civil lawsuit against Cabot and was put in the uncomfortable spot of suing the company that sent him both paychecks and royalty payments.

Ely said Cabot fired him a few months ago, citing conflict of interest because of the lawsuit. Stark, the Cabot spokesman, said Ely was put on paid leave and chose not to come back.

Methane is often described as a far more damaging greenhouse pollutant than CO2. No mention has been made here about how much methane is being released into the atmosphere as a direct result of these wells. Or how long the release will continue after the well is drilled.

Your ‘drilling regulatory staffing’ interactive is really interesting. Utah has added about 3600 Total Wells since 2003, but has only drilled about 1100. Is this the long sought proof that prayer works?

Thank you very much for the outstanding work

As always, great reporting on how the fossil fuels industry steals life and rights for profits. Cabot is among the many companies that ruin the earth in pursuit of their god, the almighty dollar. They believe that money is everybody’s god, so they offer money as compensation for driving people from their homes and poisoning their water supplies. It’s great to see citizen resistance and lawsuits against Cabot. DEP is in bed with Cabot, as the federal regulatory officials were in bed with BP. Read Derrick Jensen’s What We Leave Behind to see how to truly resist those who kill our planet and way of life.

Re: methane “evaporates out of water” - That isn’t a solution; it’s part of the problem. Methane is between 23 and 72 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and since Cabot caused more of the methane to start being released than was naturally occurring, they should be made to _capture_ it.

@John- The amounts released in to the atmosphere accidentally are dwarfed by what we are burning.  There is an order of magnitude more ghgs coming from power stations and factories compared to what is released from a rig.

@Karl- John Hanger used to be the head of PennFuture.  I don’t think greens could ask for a better DEP head.

Terry—The problem isn’t how much methane is released by “a rig.” The problem is how much methane is released by large numbers of rigs, leaking pipelines, vented water wells, etc.

It is crucial to look not just at the greenhouse gas contributions that arise from burning natural gas, but also at the full life-cycle GHG contributions, including contributions during the extraction and transportation of natural gas.

On Nov. 15, 2010, Robert W. Howarth, Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology at Cornell University, released a summary of a study that he conducted with Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea. At this point, the summary must be viewed as tentative, since the Howarth/Santoro/Ingraffea paper is currently undergoing peer review. However, if this study is correct, then the GHG contributions of NG, assuming a 20-year time horizon, are as bad as or worse than those of coal.

Whether the Howarth/Santoro/Ingraffea study is correct or not, it is obvious that the full life-cycle contributions of any fuel must be considered; simply comparing the contributions of burning various fuels is a failure to do all of the relevant accounting. The level of GHG in the atmosphere is what matters, whether the GHG were released via combustion or some other process.

@Mark- That is surprising.  I’m interested to see read the Howarth etal paper.  I’m incredulous but open to be proven wrong.

No one ever questions whether the “naturally occurring” methane that was supposedly always in some wells might have come from old, abandoned gas wells from as much as a century ago.  If that is the case, what will happen in the coming decades when the casings of these new wells start to crumble?  50% are known to fail eventually.  Take 5 minutes to watch my new movie, Puppetgas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPtwfHVp624 for the whole story, with humor, and puppets.  And go to http://www.DamascusCitizens.org for all the facts.

I’ve read all the articles, seen the movies, been there got the T-shirt. This is a perfect example of what has happened politically in his country. 40 years ago the federal and state government would have shut this stuff down Day One. There is no question this drilling is poisoning the water supply not only in PA but other areas too. Where is the government? Home in bed, paid to look the other way.

Points
1. We should not be just venting the methane, but burning it.  Run a number of small generators.
2. This is the problem when the state gets involved with legal matters.
3. I believe the citizens still have the right to sue for damages in civil court this is not over.
4. Really the water main was the best solution??  Did you ever try to convey water 11 miles with no users in the middle without significant problems?
5. What else?  What other work is being done to help remove, capture, track the methane that may be moving through the area or landowners that could be impacted in the future when they drill wells.

YES! I AGREE! please see web site DamascusCitizens.org or CatskillMountainKeeper.org for further info!

@Brian & @lonebear - given that natural gas is providing an increasing share of our power generation where would you suggest that we look to for our energy resources of the future?

NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF A MORE PRECIOUS RESOURCE YOU CANT DRINK GAS!
The gas companies are Pathological LIARS!
You obviously don’t live in a well area where they propose to drill. The only people making money are those THIEVES that own 700 acres and are “group leaders” which get a kickback from the leases that are signed.  It is not given to the people of the U.S. it will be sold to China, as well as other companies WE THE LITTLE PEOPLE WILL NEVER GET ANY BENIFIT OF IT IT WILL ONLY DESTROY A MORE PRECIOUS SOURCE WHICH CAN NOT BE DUPLICATED! JUST ASK RON GULLA!  ASK CRAIG SAUNTER! WHERE ARE WE GOING TO GO WHO WILL BUY OUR HOMES? ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY ME 4 TIMES MORE THAN WHAT MY 2.2 ACRES ARE? I DOUBT IT! THE ENTIRE GAS DRILLING COMPANIES ARE ALL BASED ON LIES AND CONTINUE TO SAY THEY DIDN’T POLLUTE DIMOCK, WHEN DEP FINGERPRINTED CHEMICALLY THE CHEMICAL THAT CAN ONLY BE TRACED TO DRILLING. I WILL END WITH YOUR PRECIOUS IDIOT PALIN REMARK WE DON’T GET EVEN WE RELOAD!
JUST REMEMBER SOME OF US ARE VIETNAM VETS WE KNOW HOW TO DEFEND OURSELVES     WE WILL BE WATCHING YOU AND READY TO LOCK AND LOAD!

Now is the time to take a better path.  The technology already exists to develop numerous real alternative energy sources using wind, solar, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal, biofuels, and some not yet discovered because we haven’t been looking in the right direction.  Some say we can’t expect these to meet our approaching energy requirements.  But to them I say we must.  Business as usual is no longer rational.  Our survival is at stake.  We must turn from the brink, not just go over it slower.

Wouldn’t we have been far better off as a people if we had known never to depend on fossil fuels because they would, of course, run out some day?  What if we could have foreseen the harm to our health and survival prospects CO2 would cause and had sought other fuels long ago?  Knowing all this now, how can we, even for a moment, consider throwing more of our future into the sinkhole created by fossil fuel dependence?  It is a guaranteed loosing scenario while turning immediately to renewable energy is a winning one.  It will be too late to catch up with the Chinese, Brazilian and European leadership in alternative fuel development and investment and profits for those industries will flow out from the U.S.  All because leaders chose short term gain over long term vision, as usual.

How about actually restoring the water to the houses instead of a cash payment. Why dont we insist the executives of Cabot and all the lobby firms who take our free, clean water come out to PA, and dig a little trench with there own corporate thieving little hands?

I guess cash buys indiscretion, so we (Cabot) can pollute if we buy off the people we have defrauded. I got it.

How many of the posters in these comments actually work for the gas lobby?

How much money does the gas lobby plan to spend on those third grade radio ads?

How about building solar instead?

How about getting out of PA and going to say, UAE instead??

The Enough Already people are worried about the Montrose water suppy if a pipeline to the affected families were built?  Worried about the water supply but pro gas drilling?  Hello!  How about the poor people whose water is already ruined?  they don’t count I guess.  I guess they are not worried about the destruction of clean water, air and land that comes with gas drilling.  I thought Cabot was supposed to make everybody rich, so how come they won;t pay for a pipeline for clean water?

Kilgour Farms

Dec. 31, 2010, 9:46 p.m.

Gotta love these environmentalists who advocate an immediate switch to renewables. As soon as the first windmill goes up or the first solar installation goes in these same poeple who complain about natural gas development will start crying to the regulatory agencies about the transmission lines they don’t want. Been down that road already with these so called environmentalists. What they really mean is anyplace else but where I live, NIMBY’ism.

You can take that to the bank.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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