Tuesday, January 24, 2012

EPA's probe of Dimock water begins with much at stake – A report from the front lines of the investigation.

 EPA technicians collect samples in Dimock.
DIMOCK, PA – Julie Sautner’s basement was a busy place today. A half dozen EPA technicians and contractors went in and out a door that opened to the back yard. Dogs in kennels raised a ruckus every time the visitors passed with loads of lab paraphernalia: rubber gloves, hoses, buckets, coolers, beakers and test tubes packaged in clear sterile wrap. They carried the supplies from three vehicles parked along the roadside in front of the house. Their tailgates were open to folding tables under tents with even more equipment that spoke to the rigors of the investigation underway. Before meaningful samples could be collected, field test had to be designed and executed to determine baselines for metals and total dissolved solids, and to establish other reference points. Plumbing would have to be unhooked to eliminate variables that might be introduced by filters, pipes, or hoses. GPS systems documented the precise location of the water well from which samples were drawn. Rules for chain of custody and testing protocol had to be observed by the letter and fully witnessed and documented.

There is a lot on the line. Dimock is part of a federal review looking into the safety of hydraulic fracturing – a controversy energized by disputes among powerful lobbyist, politicians, and activists. Even before the first water sample was collected in Dimock this week, the EPA investigation was a clear rebuke of the way the Pennsylvania DEP has handled the case. The state agency, under Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, held Cabot Oil & Gas accountable for pollution related to its intensive drilling into the Marcellus Shale. In the end of 2010, the DEP demanded that Cabot construct an $11 million municipal water line to replace the aquifer, which had absorbed dangerous levels of methane from Cabot’s over-pressurized gas wells. The company denies the accusation. Under Gov. Tom Corbett and his DEP chief, Michael Krancer, the state agency changed its position. The company had made good by offering affected residents filter systems to fix the problem, according to Krancer’s DEP. The company was then allowed to discontinue deliveries of fresh water to affected homes that were mandated under Rendell’s DEP.


Julie Sautner and her husband, Craig, were originally pro-drilling when they leased their land to Cabot in 2008. Shortly after that, their well turned brown and foul smelling. The Sautner’s accepted an offer by Cabot to install a filtration system to remedy the problem. Ken Komoroski, a company lawyer, told me at the time that Cabot’s gift -- a network of tanks and filters that had to be unhooked for the EPA sampling -- was not an admission of guilt, but an example of Cabot being “a good corporate neighbor.” The Sautners found the system was prone to failure, clogging, and was ultimately ineffective.  Now they and others fear Cabot’s offer for a new system will turn out no differently, and they have rejected it as they pursue litigation against the company for damages related to pollution.  

The EPA, acting in the public interest as an impartial party, will be closely watched and very possibly challenged no matter what the outcome. The Sautner's is among the first on a list of 60 residences that the agency will be testing, after the agency’s preliminary investigation found inorganic hazardous substances in four residential wells at levels that present a public health concern. The agency’s testing is an attempt to fill in what EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin called  “information gaps" raising troubling questions after the DEP investigation.

A few minutes before the work began at the Sautner’s this morning, a water tanker pulled on Carter Road, a scenic lane in the middle of a 9-square-mile area of intensive drilling where much of the problems have come to light.  Water tankers are a familiar site in Susquehanna County, and I passed many on their way to hydraulic fracturing jobs all over the countryside. This one, however, was an EPA contractor delivering water to the Sautner’s and three other Carter Road households with unsafe drinking water, based on the EPA’s preliminary assessment.   

Not everybody is keen on the EPA taking over the investigation. Some residents have settled the matter privately with Cabot, and some of them will not let the EPA on their property to do tests.  Conversely, some residents have refused the EPA’s invitation to allow Cabot and the DEP representatives to analyze samples as part of the probe by the federal agency. Sautner said she no longer trusted the DEP after it sided with Cabot and allowed the company to discontinue water deliveries to affected homes.

Richard Rupert, an EPA manager supervising operations at the Sautner home, said the DEP and Cabot were welcome but not essential parties to the investigation. Each is likely to use its own labratory contractor to test a given sample, and that "gives more assurances" to the outcome, Rupert said. Sautner didn't see it that way. 

“It’s like two against one,” she said. “DEP and Cabot are both on the same team.”

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