‘Gasland’ driller to pay millions for new water system in Dimock

Speaking after the hearing Tuesday at the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas in Montrose, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said 14 years was too long for residents to wait for clean water.

“There were mistakes at every level,” he said. “The local elected officials, where someone would normally go, ignored them. The regulators, whose job it is to set the limits for the industry to operate in, failed.”

Shapiro indicted Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas in June 2020 after recommendations from a grand jury found that the company “failed to acknowledge and correct conduct that polluted Pennsylvania waters through the migration of stray gases.”

The company’s plea stems from violations of the state’s Clean Streams Act as well as illegal industrial discharges. The grand jury report also said the company’s “long-term indifference” to the harm it caused warrants fines that go beyond technical violations. Read the collection document here.

Shapiro and the residents also pointed the finger at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Victoria Switzer of Dimock reminded those in attendance of those who chose to move out, those who passed away and that the DEP had promised a water line back in 2012.

“It’s the people’s attorney that got it done,” said Spitzer, a retired school teacher. “Our own elected officials, DEP, EPA failed us miserably.”

The DEP could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Victoria Switzer at her home in Dimock, 2012. Switzer and her neighbors complained to the DEP, which found Cabot Oil and Gas responsible for methane migration but not other pollutants listed in water tests. Residents who did not have groundwater samples sued Cabot. Most, including Switzer, settled their cases. (Susan Phillips/StateImpact PA)

“Refused, Refused Refused”

The company, now Coterra, released a statement saying it has “worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office to resolve historical issues.”

“As our activities today demonstrate, Coterra strives to follow best practices, exceed industry standards and continue to be a valued community partner,” spokesman George Stark wrote in an email. “We are committed to being a responsible steward of the Commonwealth’s natural resources and will continue to work closely with our landowners and community leaders.”

Cabot had consistently denied responsibility for the damage, despite findings from multiple state and federal agencies to the contrary.

“They’re all going to have to sit there and eat crow because every single one of them has lied about us for a decade,” Kemble said. “Saying this is false, that is false and everything else. Well, after today, I and the rest of my neighbors of Dimock, are vindicated. Shows we’ve been telling the truth all these years.”

As much as Kemble says it’s a good day, he says he still has to draw water for several years before construction is complete. And he would have liked to see someone go to jail.

“The higher ups in these companies, they should go to jail,” Kemble said. “Every damn one of them should be in jail. Because they knew exactly what was going on here. They knew the water contamination was happening. They knew people were dying, they knew it was toxic, and they just sat there and denied, denied, denied, denied.”

The company itself, not Cabot executives or employees, was charged. On Tuesday, Shapiro said that even if they had taken the company to court and won, the maximum penalty would have been about $600,000, which he called “pocket money for a company like that.”

“I know people are frustrated because no CEO is being led away in handcuffs,” he said.

He called for a change in the law to make polluters face tougher penalties. Legal experts say it is very difficult and rare to hold individuals accountable for environmental crimes.

Gas drilling in Dimock has attracted both national and international attention. Here, actor Mark Ruffalo attends a rally in the village after the DEP decided Cabot could end free water supplies. (Susan Phillips/StateImpact PA)

Amid promises of riches, the waters were destroyed

Cabot came to Dimock Township of about 1,200 residents around 2008 at the start of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and in the midst of the U.S. economic recession. It paid landowners per hectare for the right to drill, with the promise of royalties on the natural gas that came up from the ground. And some residents experienced financial benefits without harming their drinking water. But the battles with Cabot over the lack of drinking water for some ended up tearing apart a once close-knit community.

In his comments after the hearing, Shapiro cited Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, which guarantees clean air and water to all residents, and had a warning for other businesses.

“We will not allow communities like this to be exploited or forgotten,” he said. “Your constitutional rights matter here in Pennsylvania.”

Shapiro won election as governor in November and will take office in January.

Although problems with gas drilling and water pollution began to surface soon after drilling began in 2008 in Dimock, it wasn’t until the release of the 2010 HBO documentary Gasland that the town was thrust into the spotlight.

Methane is a colorless and odorless gas and in the right concentration can lead to explosions in a closed space.

Natural gas production in deep formations like the Marcellus shale requires drilling miles below the surface and involves angling the wellbore from vertical to horizontal to reach previously unreachable gas deposits. The “fracking” aspect of production involves shooting water and chemicals at high pressure into the borehole to pry open small cracks and release the gas. Poor well construction has been blamed for leaks of Marcellus shale gas into the porous subsurface geology of Pennsylvania.

In the case of Dimock, investigations revealed poor well construction.

Levels of methane were in some cases so high that residents could set their tap water on fire. They complained of headaches and rashes after showering. They described their water as being like Alka Seltzer, or muddy.

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