BY LAURA LEGERE
A settlement reached on Wednesday between the Department of Environmental Protection and a Houston-based gas driller has raised questions among critics about how strongly the state will defend its enforcement actions against an increasingly influential industry even as supporters applauded the agreement as a victory for common sense.
The settlement includes $4.1 million for 19 Dimock Twp. families whose methane contamination was attributed to faulty Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. natural gas wells, enough money – twice the value of each home – for the families to “address their own circumstances in their own way,” DEP Secretary John Hanger said.
The agreement replaces an earlier enforcement action that called for Cabot to pay for an $11.8 million waterline to the homes, a project that was met with criticism because it would have been paid for initially through public funds. The prospect of recovering the money from Cabot was uncertain.
Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the settlement is a “significant stepping down by the state” from the remedy Mr. Hanger said he believes is the right one.
On Wednesday, Mr. Hanger attributed the need for the settlement to public opposition to the line, especially among the state’s Republican elected officials who will control the executive and legislative branches come January.
By tying compensation to property values, the settlement also appears to be an effort to buy residents out of their homes, Ms. Sinding said.
“It looks like the state is throwing up its hands and throwing money at these people instead of helping figure out how to get them the clean water that they’re asking for,” she said.
“It doesn’t seem to be in any way reflective of the actual harm associated with the water contamination, unless you think the ultimate remedy is to get these people to pick up and move their lives.”
Critics of the waterline applauded the settlement, calling it the right decision for taxpayers and a fair penalty for Cabot.
Nate Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank that refers to the waterline as the “pipeline to nowhere,” said the settlement is a “great victory” especially because “taxpayers are now completely off the hook.”
“It sends the message that drillers are going to be held liable when they cause damage,” he said, “and when they step up to deal with that on their own with a settlement, the way Cabot did, they will be dealt with fairly.”
Loren Salsman, one of the Dimock residents affected by the contamination who also helped form a group called Enough Already to fight against the waterline, said the settlement is “everything I could have hoped for.”
In arguing against the waterline, Mr. Salsman touted the effectiveness of the methane elimination systems that Cabot must now offer and pay to install in all of the 19 homes – one of which is already treating his water and “working great.”
Mr. Salsman will receive $210,240 from the settlement, a payment he acknowledged he would not have gotten if the state and some of his neighbors had not first supported the waterline.
“Their work, and then the fight against it, all culminated in this agreement, which obviously benefits me,” he said.
The lesson of Enough Already’s fight, he said, is “democracy still works.”
Victoria Switzer, another of the affected Dimock residents who has joined with neighbors to sue Cabot for damages to health and property, saw a different lesson in the settlement.
“This is a bad deal for the state, what happened here,” she said. “It exonerates the gas companies. What a message to democracy how mob mentality rules.”
She and her husband will receive $162,352 if they accept the settlement money, far less than the amount they have invested in building a home in Dimock during the past three years.
She said she could take the money and leave her home at a loss, an impossible choice.
“Where are you going to go in the state?” she asked. “How are you going to get out of gasland?”