Anybody who cares about the country’s energy future and legacy of conservation should be paying attention to the showdown in Dimock, Pennsylvania between the federal EPA and the Pennsylvania DEP.
Most people following the fight over hydraulic fracturing and its implications for the future of domestic shale gas development know the Dimock story, so I will spare the details here. Suffice it to say the EPA’s decision to make Dimock a federal case is striking when considered in the context of the larger story. Most residents in the rural community in northeastern Pennsylvania were enthusiastic about the prospects of tapping the Marcellus Shale, a world class gas reserve under their land, even after they had naively leased rights to their land for $25 an acre. Disputes that have defined the initiative by Cabot Oil & Gas didn’t come until drilling began and problems arose, beginning with the explosion of Norma Fiorentino’s well in January 1, 2009. Since then, a stage of shifting allegiances and antagonisms have charactretized the struggle in this small-town-USA:
Cabot versus residents: The initial conflict pitted residents with polluted wells against Cabot in early 2009. A group lead by resident Victoria Switzer, Ron and Jeannie Carter, Craig and Julie Sautner, and other residents began a campaign to have Cabot deliver water to all affected homes.
DEP versus Cabot: After a 10-month investigation, DEP officials began pressing Cabot to address the problem. Under the Rendell administration, DEP secretary John Hanger tried to force the company to build an $11 million pipeline to provide clean municipal water to more than a dozen households with polluted water. From there, the conflict grew uglier.
Neighbor versus neighbor: A contingent of neighbors, called Enough Already, organized to defeat the pipeline plan. They sided with Cabot, and they argued that the pro-pipeline residents were malcontents would drive away drilling business in Susquehanna County.
DEP versus residents: The agency settled with Cabot to scrap the pipeline and instead have the company install “whole house” treatment systems. Under the governor Tom Corbett’s administration, the DEP stopped fighting with Cabot last year, and declared that the company met its obligation to residents by offering them systems to remove methane from their water. The residents argued the systems were unreliable and did not protect them against other kinds of drilling pollution.
The EPA versus the DEP. The EPA announced early this month that it would take over the investigation, and it began by delivering water to affected homes after its initial testing found drilling chemicals in private water wells. It will begin independent testing at least 60 properties. The federal agency’s intervention is a strong rebuke to the state’s handling of the situation, and one of the clearest signals yet that the EPA has reversed its hands-off approach it took to domestic drilling under the Bush administration.
As I have noted in this blog, the story has implications similar to Love Canal, New York, which became an EPA case among growing concerns that pollution in the Niagara Falls community posed significant health risks that were being ignored. The EPA investigation in Dimock comes at a critical time. With events related to the Keystone pipeline project calling attention to the nation's national policy during during an election year, the events in Dimock will unfold on a national stage featuring
voters, politicians, and activists on all sides of the issue.