State to install $11.8M line, sue Cabot for cost if necessary
BY LAURA LEGERE
Pennsylvania’s head environmental regulator committed Thursday to installing an $11.8 million public water line for at least 18 families whose water supplies have been contaminated by methane from natural gas drilling.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said the state will sue Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., the Texas-based gas driller deemed responsible for the contamination, to recoup the cost of installing the approximately 12.5 miles of new pipe from Montrose if the company refuses to fund the project voluntarily.
Speaking in front of residents, attorneys, protesters and reporters crowded into pews at the Dimock Baptist Church, Hanger read at length from two consent orders signed by officials with DEP and Cabot in which the company accepted that faulty gas wells caused the methane contamination and agreed to fix the problem – a promise the company did not keep, Hanger said.
“We have had people here in Pennsylvania without safe drinking water at their homes and properties for close to two years,” he said. “That is totally, totally unacceptable. It is reprehensible.”
Rather than wait for Cabot to cooperate in the water line – a prospect that seemed increasingly unlikely this week as the company distributed advertisements, letters and press releases challenging the need for the project – the state decided to “take decisive action now,” Hanger said.
Cabot maintains that the methane in Dimock’s water supplies is naturally occurring.
In a letter from Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges to Mr. Hanger this week, the company accused the state of ignoring evidence that Cabot did not cause the problems and forcing it to sign consent orders “under extraordinary duress.”
Cabot spokesman George Stark, who attended the announcement Thursday, said afterward that the company “remains committed to working with the secretary and the affected residents.”
“We want to ensure that all options are being laid (out) and there be no rush to judgement on one option,” he said.
The new water line will be operated by Pennsylvania American Water as part of its Lake Montrose system. It will include a 5.5-mile water main along Route 29 and about 7 miles of distribution lines to the homes, as well as pressure-regulating stations, a treatment facility and fire hydrants.
Kathy Pape, president of Pennsylvania American Water, said she expects the project will take 18 months to build once work begins, but that remains several months away.
Hanger said the state will work to force Cabot to take financial responsibility for the line, including covering the families’ water fees – a cost he would not estimate on Thursday but which could potentially dwarf the nearly $12 million price of installing the line.
He defended the department’s science as well as its treatment of Cabot during the 20-month investigation into the methane migration, saying testing definitively identified the gas in the water as coming from Cabot wells.
Since Jan. 1, 2009, when a blast blew a concrete cover off a resident’s water well, Dimock has been synonymous with the dangers posed by intensive development of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
DEP suspended portions of Cabot’s extensive drilling operations in Susquehanna County and levied more than $360,000 in fines after it found that 14 of the company’s gas wells were improperly constructed or overpressured and were causing methane to seep into water wells.
At least 11 of the affected families, all of them plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Cabot, refused the company’s proposed solution of installing methane elimination systems in each of the homes, saying the systems are inadequate to fix the problems.
Stark said Thursday that the lawsuit, not foot-dragging by Cabot, has slowed the water solution.
“We have those who are not taking legal action against us and their water has been restored,” he said.
Tensions between Cabot and the families have increased in recent weeks. The company hired armed guards to escort workers to some homes after an incident with an armed resident led to disorderly conduct charges, although official details could not be confirmed on Thursday.
Hanger appealed for both sides to act rationally.
“Let me say this to everybody involved, everybody: Put the guns away,” he said.
Despite the trouble in Dimock, Hanger refused on Thursday to reverse his long-held position that drilling in the Marcellus Shale can be done safely.
He said that the rural township is “an absolute case of how terribly wrong” the influx of deep-gas drilling has gone in some places, but he said that in “many parts of the state it has gone reasonably well.”
Asked how, or if, the state can guarantee that Lake Montrose – the source for public water in and around the Susquehanna County seat – will be protected as drilling expands around it, Hanger said only that is “a matter that we need to address.”
The church setting for Thursday’s event seemed fitting at times, as when the audience’s calls to “Shut them down, John” sounded like a chorus of “Amens.”
The families with tainted water wore blue ribbons pinned to their shirts. They said they were grateful for the state’s commitment to a solution even as they regretted their loss.
“Many of my friends here want that good, pure water that they had originally,” Dimock resident Victoria Switzer said. “We know that that’s not the way it is now. We have to compromise.”
Ron Carter, whose small home is yards from a well site that has been active for years, said he had feared that Hanger would call off the event this week under the pressure of Cabot’s public criticism.
“I’m glad that something has been settled,” he said. “That we are going to get water down here no matter what Cabot says, no matter what they do.”