|The Sautner home became focus of the antifracking movement|
PHOTO JAMES PITARRESI
After years of controversy, Cabot last year paid an undisclosed amount to owners of that property, Craig and Julie Sautner, to settle claims that drilling contaminated their water well. As part of the deal, Cabot acquired the 3.6-acre property, the status of which remained a matter of speculation until last week when flatbeds unloaded a demolition excavator and multiple dumpsters in the driveway of the vacant home.
Since then, the three bedroom ranch, sitting tidy and plumb under a canopy of maple trees off the bucolic dirt road, has become a symbol of the anti-fracking movement in the heart of Cabot’s most prolific well field.
|EPA investigation begins at Sautner home in Jan. 2012|
PHOTO JAMES PITARRESI
My coverage of this story for the Press & Sun-Bulletin, and later in writing Under the Surface and posts for this blog, brought me into the Saunter’s home on several occasions. The house, with three bathrooms and a finished basement, was fairly new and well kept. A barn-star adorned unblemished vinyl siding next to the garage entrance, and America the Beautiful was inscribed in a silvery stencil on the wall opposite the entrance in the main foyer. The interior decor reflected the Sautner’s fondness for wall art and country nick knacks, carefully arranged, along with framed photos of the Sautner’s teenage children – Cody and Kelly -- and their various pets, including Emmi, an overprotective Chihuahua that had to be contained when visitors arrived.
|Cabot contractors demolish the former Sautner property|
PHOTO TOM WILBER
The federal agency began it’s own series of tests, and found arsenic, barium, manganese, chromium, and methane in five of 61 wells at levels “that could propose a health concern.” The agency determined no follow up was necessary, however, because residents of affected homes had been notified and polluted wells were taken off line or equipped with filters. The contamination -- in roughly 8 percent of the wells tested -- was from naturally occurring compounds that are also used in or associated with drilling operations, which can exacerbate existing problems or introduce new ones.
The Sautner’s approach -- blunt, antagonistic, and sustained – was eventually met by counter attacks from Cabot and gas supporters, both locally and nationally, determined to discredit their claims. While Josh Fox portrayed the Sautners as victims-turned-activists in Gasland, filmmaker Phelim McAleer, from Ireland, depicted them in his film Frack Nation as self-serving and exploitive phonies. (My reviews of both films can be found here.)
|A new message at 1101 Carter Road|
PHOTO TOM WILBER
I placed a call to Cabot spokesman George Stark, who told me that the company had a potential buyer for the land and that it was more marketable without the house. Stark said he did not know if the land would be developed, and could not offer other details.
An obvious line of thinking, reflected on anti-fracking list serves, is this: With no home, there is no well, and with no well, there is no liability related to water pollution, at least at 1101 Carter Road. But water pollution at other homes continues to plague the company. Regulators are now focusing on methane pollution in three water wells about a mile south of the Sautner home, where Carter Road tees into State Route 3023. The DEP has indentified Cabot’s Costello gas well at this location as the primary suspect.
Stark said that a service rig, which has been at the site for months, allows crews to “monitor” the casing of the gas well, which appears sound.
DEP officials explained it differently. They have not pinpointed a source, according to a recent report in the Scranton Times Tribune quoting DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly. But they have determined that the suspect gas well is "unviable" and will have to be plugged. In an email response to my query, Connolly reported that Cabot is ”continuing remedial efforts” at the Costello gas well and “evaluating the effectiveness” of the work. Methane levels are fluctuating, she said. Additionally, tests have shown levels of iron and manganese that were elevated but within standards in some water samples. Elevated levels of these elements is “not uncommon during gas migration,” she reported.
New and substantial research shows that methane migration from shale gas development is not an isolated problem. A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that methane concentrations to be, on average, six times higher for homes with water supplies a kilometer or less from Marcellus Shale gas wells. Ethane, another component of natural gas, averaged 23 times higher for homes within a kilometer from natural gas wells.
The excavator raised its boom and swung it toward the side of the garage. It came to an abrupt stop just before impact. The operator then raised the talons of the bucket to the top of the garage, and guided them in a slow arch, peeling back a swath of roof. The machine began biting into the asphalt tiles, roof boards and rafters. Within an hour, the two-car garage was mostly gone, and the machine continued chewing apart the house and packing wads of siding, insulation, wiring and splintered timber into dumpsters. By the end of the next day, all traces of the house were gone, except the foundation, which was filled in shortly thereafter.
The Sautners are bound by the non-disclosure clause from discussing the Cabot settlement or the water issue. But Craig Sautner did offer this about the demolition: “Their (Cabot’s) actions speak louder than words. There is nothing that I can say that tells the story any better than what they did.”
Time will tell whether 1101 Carter Road remains an uninhabited part of Cabot’s oil patch. The company, meanwhile, is staking much of its future on the gas field in northern Pennsylvania. According to Richard Zeits, reporting for the financial website Seeking Alpha, Cabot officials anticipate at least 3,000 future drilling sites on several hundred thousand acres in Susquehanna County. Yet at the heart of this area, where it all began, the future of the nine-square mile no-drill zone remains awkwardly bound to its legacy of water issues.
Note: This video of the demolition was taken by Vera Scroggins, an anti-fracking activist who lives in Susquehanna County.