Pa. Environmental Agency Butts Heads With Gas Drilling Company Over Town’s Water Woes
Residents of Dimock, Pa., whose water woes have been widely chronicled as a prime example of the hidden costs of natural gas drilling, will get a safe and permanent water supply to replace their methane-contaminated wells, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced Thursday.
For about two years, Cabot Oil & Gas, a natural gas drilling company, has supplied drinking water to some Dimock residents after several private drinking wells were found to be contaminated with methane, the main component of natural gas. A few wells have exploded. The Pennsylvania DEP has said that Cabot is responsible for the problems and announced intentions to bill the company for the cost of an $11.8 million plan to construct a new public water line to serve these residents.
"We have had people here in Pennsylvania without safe drinking water for nearly two years," said John Hanger, head of Pennsylvania's DEP. "That is totally unacceptable. It is reprehensible. We have given Cabot every opportunity to resolve this matter."
But Cabot has pushed back against the agency, taking out a full-page ad this week in several local newspapers and calling plans to construct the water system "unreasonable, unprecedented ... and unfair."
The company also issued the following statement:
Despite the fact that the company has presented overwhelming scientific evidence and historical documentation to the Pennsylvania DEP proving it is not responsible for methane gas migration to local water wells, the Pennsylvania DEP has chosen to ignore such evidence, preferring instead to base unprecedented and costly mandates on biased and unscientific opinions and accounts.
Pennsylvania's DEP chief said earlier this week that the agency and the company would likely end up in court on this issue.
As we've reported, the agency fined Cabot $120,000 last fall after determining that water supplies were contaminated by methane gas leaked through Cabot's faulty well casings. It was fined again in April for failure to address the problem of methane contamination. This time the fine was heftier — a $240,000 penalty, plus $30,000 each month until the department determines that the problem has been properly addressed. It also ordered the company to permanently shut down some of its wells.
As we've noted, methane in drinking water itself isn't necessarily harmful or dangerous, but it can be when it evaporates from the water and into people's homes. If the gas becomes concentrated enough, it can ignite, even in water.
A private lab that tested water in Dimock found that water supplies in the areas affected by methane contamination were also contaminated by toxic industrial solvents including toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported earlier this month.
A group of Dimock residents — among them, a former Cabot employee and several residents whose wells had caught fire — filed a lawsuit last year against the company for the contamination and the health risks it could pose to them.
Cabot mentioned the lawsuit in its ad this week, adding that it "does not believe it caused these conditions and intends to fight these allegations through its scientific findings."
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.