Final Resolution to Dimock, PA Water Problem?

Dimock, PA has been a rallying cry for many who oppose shale gas drilling. For those with only a peripheral knowledge of the struggle, the word Dimock conjures up an image of nasty hydraulic fracturing fluids seeping into ground water supplies and contaminating them so they are now undrinkable by humans or animals. But such an image would be wrong.

What happened in Dimock, according to the PA State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is that the drilling company Cabot Oil & Gas did not properly case (enclose the bore hole), which led to methane (natural gas) escaping through cracks into the local water supply for area homes. Methane gas in water does not kill when consumed, but it can become an explosion hazard as happened with one local water well in the area.

Cabot has always maintained its wells were cased properly and that the methane in the area is naturally occurring and existed in local water supplies long before they arrived on the scene with their drilling rigs. The DEP said Cabot contributed to the problem and slapped them with fines and made them plug several wells (for more background details, see this MDN story and this MDN story).

The end result was that Cabot was required to pay a lot of money, and is still on the hook to truck in potable water to 14 homes and to install permanent water treatment systems in those homes. Cabot has installed those systems and now wants to end trucking potable water since the water treatment systems are removing virtually all methane from the water, at least in the homes that have allowed Cabot to test.

The company [Cabot] asked the department [DEP] to allow it to stop delivering replacement bottled and bulk water to the affected homes by Nov. 30 and to resume drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations "immediately" in a 9-square-mile area around Carter Road that has been off-limits to the driller since April 2010.

"The primary reason to discontinue these temporary water supplies now is, simply, that they are no longer needed," Cabot’s Vice President and Regional Manager Phillip L. Stalnaker wrote.

Cabot spokesman George Stark said the elevated levels of methane revealed by [recent] tests illustrates that the county has "naturally occurring" methane "that is neither fixed nor predictable" and fluctuations occur because of water use, barometric pressure and water well maintenance and construction.

"Water treatment systems work," he said, adding that the treatment systems Cabot has installed for several of the affected homes remove 96 to 98 percent of the methane.

Eighty percent of about 2,000 groundwater samples Cabot has taken before drilling in Susquehanna County have "detectable levels of methane," he said.

The company argued in its report to DEP on Monday that the groundwater in Dimock "meets all applicable DEP requirements" and "there is no valid technical reason" for Cabot to continue providing residents with replacement water.*

The clock is now ticking, although the DEP has to first approve Cabot’s request. If they do approve it, Cabot will either wait until the end of November to end water deliveries, or for those families who still refuse to have their new water treatment systems tested, Cabot will end water deliveries sooner. It appears Cabot’s patience is growing thin and they are now using a carrot and a stick to try and bring this to resolution.

The company plans to write notices to all of the affected families on or before Nov. 1 to offer the free services of a plumber for 60 days to reconnect their water wells to their homes or install a methane removal system.

"For those property owners who refuse to allow testing of their permanent water well supply, Cabot will discontinue deliveries at its earliest opportunity, and will not wait until November 30, 2011 to discontinue deliveries of fresh water," Mr. Stalnaker wrote.*

*The Scranton Times Tribune (Oct 19, 2011) – Cabot argues to resume drilling in Dimock as tests show surges of methane in water wells