|Crews use a service rig in Dimock to diagnose problems|
PHOTO VERA SGROGGINS
Recent cases involve two homes in a gas field where the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has banned drilling of new wells in the wake of chronic water pollution tracked to nearby operations of Cabot Oil & Gas. Cabot crews continue to operate a service rig between gas wells and water wells to diagnose problems in an area where the DEP has found dangerous levels of methane flowing into residential water wells near the junction of Carter Road and State Route 3023.
Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said this week that the agency has not determined when the latest round of testing will be released.
Cabot has been cited in the past for various violations that the DEP has linked to problems. Wells providing water to several dozen homes have been taken off line or fitted with filtration equipment to remove gas and other pollution since the water well of Dimock resident Norma Fiorentino exploded on New Year’s Day, 2009.
Although drilling has been banned in a nine-square mile area where problems are the worst, the DEP recently allowed fracking to stimulate production of exisiting wells. Two months ago, DEP officials responded to complaints that drinking water at several homes became turbid after crews fracked nearby natural gas wells. Subsequent tests showed two water wells serving homes along State Route 3023 contained explosive levels of methane, according to information from the DEP. Cabot Spokesman George Stark did not return calls for comment. In the past, he has said the problem may be linked to a frozen vent.
In addition to methane, the DEP is testing water samples taken from affected homes for various other contaminants, including metals and chlorides (listed below), which are markers for pollution from gas drilling and production.
With the recent announcement that DEP Chief Michael Krancer is stepping down, the problem will be passed on to the third administration. In 2010, John Hanger, who served as Governor Ed Rendell’s top environmental official, found that shale gas operations had ruined the aquifer serving homes in and around Carter Road. As a remedy, Hanger ordered Cabot to build an $11 million pipeline to restore fresh water to affected homes. After the order, Cabot denied that it was responsible for pollution, and the pipeline order was eventually defeated amid political opposition when Tom Corbett, a drilling supporter, was elected governor. Last August, Cabot reached an undisclosed settlement with 32 of 36 Dimock families suing for damages related to pollution of water wells. Other lawsuits are pending.
In an investigation last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, or methane, in five of 64 water wells – roughly 8 percent. It concluded that the concentrations could pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems drilling companies had installed or planned for the homes. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now following up with an evaluation of it’s own.
Early this year, the DEP came under fire about how it handles testing at sites suspected of pollution from gas development. In January, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced a review of the agency’s regulation, testing and enforcement program. The intention of the probe, according to a letter from DePasquale to Krancer, is to determine the "adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."
The recurring problem of pollution related to shale gas and related public relations issues will be inherited by Krancer’s successor.
While methane migration is not unique to Dimcok, the rural community has been divided by the issue, and is featured as a case study and focal point of the anti-fracking movement just across the state border in New York, where fracking is on hold pending a more extensive review of environmental and health issues.
What the DEP is testing for in Dimock water wells: