Friday, December 16, 2011

Cabot Oil & Gas report refutes whistleblower’s allegations

People following shale gas development in Dimock, Pa., might remember how the explosion of Norma Fiorentino’s well on Jan. 1, 2009 triggered a two-year investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The agency concluded that the explosion was caused by methane from nearby shale gas drilling operations that polluted the Fiorentino well and more than a dozen others. Cabot CEO Dan Dinges has denied that the Marcellus Shale drilling operations in the small rural community had anything to do with the explosion of Norma’s well or other problems. At one point, Dinges accused John Hanger, head of DEP under Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, of fabricating the explosion to make Cabot look bad.  

Cabot’s denial that several hundred wells being drilled within a nine-square mile area of Susquehanna County (over one of the richest sections of the Marcelles) are linked to methane problems or any other kind of pollution has become thematic in the story of Dimock, a community divided by landowners and businesses benefiting from revenue from the gas industry, and those who are suffering from the ill effects – traffic; non-potable water; and disruption of the landscape with the ongoing constructions of pads, compressors and pipelines. Cabot has been sanctioned by the DEP for numerous violations of environmental laws, and it has responded by depicting itself as the victim of overzealous and unfair regulators. After agreeing to a negotiated order by the DEP to fix the methane migration problem at numerous drilling sites, Dinges later fought the order, saying the company signed the agreement “under duress.”

The latest development of this story came this week, when URS – Cabot’s environmental consultant -- released a report about its investigation prompted by a whistleblower. The whistleblower’s name is Scott Ely, a local resident, equipment operator, and Jack of All Trades hired by Cabot in 2008 to work on well pads. Ely saw a lot of what went on at these sites, and he didn’t like what he saw. Near the end of 2009, he called up his attorney, a DEP inspector, and a Cabot official, and lead them on a tour of 11 sites where Ely claimed spills were under-reported, unreported, or covered up (sometimes literally). Many allegations involved Ely’s assertion that pits that held drilling waste had not been properly closed, and that underground pollution was a threat to aquifers and streams. A diesel spill at Teel 5 reported to the DEP as being 800 gallons in June, 2008 was, in fact, closer to 3,000 gallons, Ely said. The spill, from a faulty tank, had happened in the middle of the night and wasn’t reported until 6 a.m., and a supervisor “intentionally moved a reference point hay bale so the DEP would incorrectly obtain a clean post-remediation sample.” Scott suspected that diesel two feet below the surface was still leaching into a nearby watershed to the Susquehanna River.

Cabot hired URS to investigate the claims. Cabot’s conclusion of the report released this week: “None of Scott Ely's allegations revealed any environmental condition that required any cleanup or remediation at any of the eleven well sites.  All of Scott Ely's allegations are now confirmed by the study to have lacked substance.”

Given the course of events, skeptics might find this conclusion, based on a report by a firm hired by Cabot to handle the company's environmental issues, as unsurprising.

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