Water deliveries to Dimock residents, like the truck delivery shown here, may be cut off less than a week after Thanksgiving
It’s been over a year since my last post on Dimock, PA, highlighting former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), John Hangar’s, welcome announcement that Dimock residents whose well water was contaminated by Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation’s shoddy drilling practices would be receiving much needed relief in the form of an $11.8 million new municipal water pipeline.
Although I would like to report today that Dimock residents will soon have reliable clean water after depending for the past two years on DEP-mandated, daily water deliveries from Cabot, the truth is that relief is nowhere in sight.
Not only has the promised pipeline become a “pipe dream,” but on October 18, 2011, DEP sent a letter to Cabot allowing the driller – unlawfully – to stop all deliveries of temporary water on November 30, 2011.
To recap, the pipeline that was approved in November of 2010 by a vote of 9-2 by the PennVEST Board (an agency that funds water and sewer infrastructure projects) was scrapped a month later by DEP after the agency entered into a settlement agreement with Cabot. The original plan was to build the line and recover the costs from Cabot, but under the terms of the new agreement, Cabot would be off the hook for providing fresh water to Dimock residents as soon as it established nineteen escrow funds – one for each affected home – with twice the assessed value of the home as well as offer to install a “whole house” methane treatment system for each household. The total cost of the agreement to Cabot would be less than half that of building the line.
On October 17, 2011, Cabot sent a letter to DEP claiming it had met its end of the bargain under the new agreement and asking permission to terminate supply of temporary fresh water. The very next morning, Acting Deputy Secretary Scott Perry sent a letter to Cabot certifying compliance and granting Cabot’s request to stop water deliveries on November 30. The letter, which nowhere mentions that the Dimock water is now clean or that it would be after “whole house” treatment, was never sent to Dimock residents. Not only was this action insulting to the residents who have already suffered years of contaminated water and the risk of explosion, but it also happens to be contrary to law.
Under the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, any driller who is responsible for contaminating a public or private water well is obligated to completely “restore or replace” that supply. The law also provides that DEP is responsible for enforcing the Commonwealth’s strict “you break it you fix it” policy. Without getting into the nitty gritty of DEP’s detailed regulations, until Cabot completely restores the contaminated water or replaces it with a new reliable source of fresh water, DEP is not at liberty to rewrite the law and forgive Cabot for anything less. Additionally, although Cabot may claim that “whole house” methane treatment is good enough, it still falls well short of the stringent legal and regulatory standard.
In response to the October 18 letter, my colleagues traveled to Dimock earlier this month to talk with residents about their water and to again see firsthand how fracking operations have industrialized the rural landscape. The general consensus is that, despite industry claims to the contrary, Dimock water is still full of methane and other hazardous substances, and that even though the “whole house” methane treatment system may reduce methane levels, it doesn’t work at taking the other contaminants out. Testing of local post treatment water continues to be conducted, but already, testing of one family’s water has shown the presence of ethylene glycol – otherwise known as antifreeze – a chemical associated with fracking. The bottom line is that residents are still afraid of drinking the water, and those who take Cabot’s money now must face the grueling choice of continuing to pay for temporary fresh water at a cost of over $36,000 a year per household, taking their chances with the water, or moving.
In the face of this Hobson’s choice, many residents have decided to reject the money and fight instead. Some residents, like Craig Sautner, continue to call state officials every day to demand his family’s right to clean water under Pennsylvania law despite receiving a warning from the Capitol in Harrisburg – also unlawful – that he may be arrested by the police if he keeps exercising his constitutional right to petition the government.
Eleven families have also sued Cabot, and are now challenging DEP’s actions in the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board. In response to DEP’s egregious and insulting action allowing Cabot to stop providing fresh water to residents who depend on it daily for drinking, bathing, and all other household needs, NRDC is joining our voice with our friends in Dimock and has sent a letter to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer demanding that DEP revoke this illegal action.
The residents of Dimock have endured enough not to have to sit around their dinner tables this Thanksgiving wondering whether their access to fresh water will be cut off in less than a week’s time. It is time that they receive the permanent clean water supply the law requires.