"Irreversible": Water contaminated by gas drillers is not easy to fix

DIMOCK (PA) -- Officials in Pennsylvania asked a man whose well water was polluted for many years if he would consider accepting a treatment system provided by the gas driller who is accused of fouling his aquifer.

"Irreversible": Water contaminated by gas drillers is not easy to fix

"Irreversible": Water contaminated by gas drillers is not easy to fix

DIMOCK (PA) -- Officials in Pennsylvania asked a man whose well water was polluted for many years if he would consider accepting a treatment system provided by the gas driller who is accused of fouling his aquifer.

Ray Kemble assured them that there was no chance.

Kemble asked her prosecutor and her special agent colleague "Are you going drink and bathe it?" "Are you going to live here for a month in that house and then use the water?"

The officials refused to comply.

Prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against Pennsylvania's most prolific driller of natural gas. They also want to negotiate a settlement that could bring more benefits to homeowners than a conviction.

Prosecutors recently talked about an option that would allow them to meet with residents who see individual water treatment systems as inefficient and unworkable. The residents want to be connected to public water, a controversial idea that was first proposed by state environmental officials more than a decade ago and then abandoned.

"Irreversible": Water contaminated by gas drillers is not easy to fix

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM

Today

Ray Kemble speaks about water issues at his Dimock, Pa. home on February 14, 2022. Kemble met recently with Pennsylvania's attorney general about the criminal case against the gas driller who was accused of polluting Dimock's underground water with methane. Cabot Oil & Gas was accused of drilling faulty gas wells that leaked methane into Dimock's groundwater. This is one of the most famous pollution cases to have emerged from the U.S. fracking boom. (AP Photo/Mike Rubinkam)

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Ray Kemble speaks about water issues at his Dimock, Pa. home on February 14, 2022. Kemble met recently with Pennsylvania's attorney general about the criminal case against the gas driller who was accused of polluting Dimock's underground water with methane. Cabot Oil & Gas was accused of drilling faulty gas wells that leaked methane into Dimock's groundwater. This is one of the most famous pollution cases to have emerged from the U.S. fracking boom. (AP Photo/Mike Rubinkam)

DIMOCK (PA) -- Officials in Pennsylvania asked a man whose well water was polluted for many years if he would consider accepting a treatment system provided by the gas driller who is accused of fouling his aquifer.

Ray Kemble assured them that there was no chance.

Kemble asked her prosecutor and her special agent colleague "Are you going drink and bathe it?" "Are you going to live here for a month in that house and then use the water?"

The officials refused to comply.

Prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against Pennsylvania's most prolific driller of natural gas. They also want to negotiate a settlement that could bring more benefits to homeowners than a conviction.

Prosecutors recently talked about an option that would allow them to meet with residents who see individual water treatment systems as inefficient and ineffective. The residents want to be connected to public water, a controversial idea that was first proposed by state environmental officials more than a decade ago and then abandoned.

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Residents who have been fighting for clean drinking water since the second Bush administration are demonstrating the delicate task of Dimock's attorney general. Dimock is synonymous with the fracking debate. There, distrust and acrimony have become the default response to nearly 14 years worth of poor water quality and broken promises.

The first thing that caught the public's attention was an explosion at a water well located 150 miles (240 km) north of Philadelphia. Residents began reporting that their well water was making it difficult to eat.

Celebrities and documentary filmmakers who are anti-drilling descended on Dimock, calling him an example of natural oil industry malfeasance at the nation's No. 2 gas-producing state. The industry backers meanwhile praised the economic benefits of cheap natural gas and accused the green groups of exaggerating this threat.

Although the hoopla ended, Dimock's water continued to be polluted. The state has reported new contamination cases as recently as December. However, Dimock's water remained polluted.

Shapiro's office required water testing in dozens of homes. To discuss the results, officials from both the company and prosecutors met with residents in December. The prosecutors brought up the possibility of water treatment systems to help resolve the charges against Cabot. This is now Coterra Energy Inc.

Jacklin Rhoads (Shakirovo's spokesperson) declined to answer any questions regarding the "existence or content of any discussions" in connection to the case, but stated that the state's criminal environmental laws provide "limited tools" to hold polluters accountable. A conviction under the Clean Streams Law of the state carries a maximum $50,000 penalty.

Rhoads stated that a settlement can deliver more to victims than a guilty verdict. However, the goal of the case is to resolve it through trial or settlement in a manner that maximizes restoration and protection for clean water for residents.

A spokesperson for Dimock declined to comment citing "active legal matter". The company has long maintained its records and denied any responsibility for Dimock's groundwater contamination.

Officials from the attorney general's offices warned Kemble that Cabot's trial was unlikely. The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of December's meeting.

Kemble was long a fierce critic of Cabot and said that "if it goes to trial all bets will be off." Justus Brambley IV is a supervisory agent. "If we can convince Cabot to fix the issue, which is the water, then it's better to not go to trial."

Rebecca Franz, Brambley’s colleague and chief assistant attorney general in the attorney General's Environmental Crimes Section, stated that prosecutors were determined to solve the case so residents could have clean water.

According to the recording, she stated that "the best way forward" could be a system that is approved by an independent consultant to ensure that it functions and works.

Kemble dismissed the idea. Kemble said Pennsylvania should fulfill its 2010 promise to Cabot to connect affected homes to public water. The $12 million plan was announced by state environmental officials to great fanfare. However, it was later discarded months later by Cabot and local officials who called it a boondoggle, and threatened to sue to stop it. Regulators arranged for Cabot's payment for water filtration systems.

Brambley asked Kemble, "So from your point of view, is it waterline or nothing?"

Kemble stated, "Water line or none."

___

It's unclear whether water systems are still being considered two months later after the conversation. Kemble was skeptical about the idea.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, having concluded that Cabot Oil & Gas had polluted Dimock’s groundwater, reached a settlement. Cabot agreed that each resident would be provided with a treatment system and a monetary award equaling twice their home's tax value.

Residents were not consulted or given consent to the agreement. This angered those who had expressed their disapproval of Cabot handling their water. Many residents accepted the money and the treatment systems.

Joe Nally maintained and installed dozens of these systems in Cabot's and other drilling companies. While some systems worked well, others were more susceptible to failure and required constant attention, at great cost, to keep them running. He said that filters were prone to clogging quickly and could use $200-300 worth of filters per week.

Nally, who retired from the industry many years ago, said that "it was absolutely a maintenance problem with them." He said that groundwater quality was variable and systems were "tweaked a lot" from blueprints. There were many problems with the systems. Many of these systems cost $40,000 and were left in the yard to placate the homeowner. They weren't doing anything to their well water.

Now, the system Cabot installed in Tim and Deb Maye’s home is disused in a large shed just outside their house.

Logs written by contractors show hundreds of visits over the years. The complex setup of tanks, filter and control panels repeatedly failed to work, leaked, and caused a lot of bacteria. Most of the equipment was eventually removed and replaced.

"I am very sorry for everything you have gone through," wrote a geologist from the state environmental department in an email to Mayes in 2014.

The DEP eventually walked away from Cabot and the couple. The Mayes were told by regulators that they would have to pay for repairs and maintenance, and that the settlement money should be used for that purpose.

Scott Perry, the chief oil and gas regulator in the state, told DEP staffers not to listen to Mayes' frequent complaints about their water supply. According to a 2017 letter, he also informed the couple that the matter was settled.

They claimed that they had never accepted responsibility for the operation of the system. They were also tired of having to make twice weekly maintenance visits for a system that didn't seem to work.

Tim Maye stated, "It was just an awful nightmare."

The Mayes stated that the system crashed again two weeks after Cabot stopped paying upkeep. They decided to let it go, and used their untreated water for bathing and flushing the toilets. Bottled water was used for all other purposes.

Deb Maye said, "This was supposed be our forever home." She had moved to Dimock with her family to escape the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia's suburbs. "And the DEP, the gas company destroyed it."

Perry was the DEP deputy secretary until February 11, when he resigned from state employment. He also served as the long-serving head of the agency’s oil and gas department. In a January interview, Perry admitted that the treatment systems did not work right out of the box. However, he stated that they do work and some residents continue to use them.

"All homeowners were given two times their home's value so they could take care of their water needs in the best way possible," Perry said. Perry stated that many of them chose to not maintain their systems.

He insisted that DEP "did what was right" in Dimock. He noted that the settlement with Cabot resulted in six-figure sums each resident received.

Perry stated, "You know, you can buy a lot bottled water, depending on what you need."

___

Dimock resident Erik Roos was acutely aware of the difficulties that Dimock residents have with their treatment systems. He met with the attorney general's to review the results of his water test. Among other things the test revealed that Roos' water contained methane. At high enough concentrations, the gas can cause asphyxiation.

Representatives of Coterra, Cabot's corporate successor were also present at Roos meeting. (Kemble, a nearby resident, had previously barred Cabot's corporate successor, Coterra, from his property and told prosecutors that their attempt to include Coterra in the meeting was a "slap in face."

Roos mentioned the possibility of a water treatment unit, but he never allowed one to go into his home, as he believes they don't work. He drives seven miles (11 km) to an artesian water well, which supplies water for drinking as well as cooking.

Roos stated to state officials that he would like to be connected to a public line for water.

"Cabot screwed the aquifer; the water was not their fault," Roos stated in a telephone interview. "I don't want Cabot getting off. They are entitled to pay for a waterline.

DEP officials point out that Coterra remains banned from drilling in a 9-square-mile (23-square-kilometer) area of Dimock because the state says it still has not sufficiently reduced the level of methane in the water. New reports from Dimock, just outside the moratorium zone, and neighboring communities in which Coterra is drilling gas wells are being investigated by the agency.

Perry stated that the water line that his agency had once hoped would be a permanent solution couldn't have been constructed due to the legal, political and logistical realities of the time. Perry said that while some residents desired public water, others didn't.

"I couldn’t fix it." Perry said that he couldn't fix it. Perry said he didn't know Cabot was facing criminal charges until the AP brought up the matter during an interview. "We did our best."

As a different branch of the state government attempts to solve the Dimock puzzle, the attorney general's water test reveals what the prosecutors are up to.

Zacariah Hildenbrand (a Dallas-based biochemist) discovered bacteria in Kemble’s water. Kemble submitted a report to the AP in which Hildenbrand stated that the influx natural gas into Dimock’s aquifer created an environment for such bacteria to "survive" and "proliferate."

Hildenbrand declined comment to the AP about the results of his testing. He said that once groundwater is contaminated by a gas drilling operation, it will remain so.

Hildenbrand stated in an interview that there is no way to put the genie back in its bottle. "You have completely altered the ecology of this water. These changes are irreversible.

Perry disagreed. Perry disagreed.

Perry stated that Dimock's water supply is "not permanently impaired." We won't allow the oil-and-gas industry to leave behind a legacy of polluted groundwater.

Coterra has drilled over 130 new gas wells in the state since June 15, 2020, when the attorney general filed charges. This is more than any other state driller. State inspectors have also documented almost 200 violations at Coterra wells during that period.

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