Saturday, January 25, 2014

Solutions to H20 pollution elude officials in Cabot gas field Five years after blast, Pa officials continue tests in Dimock

Five years after the explosion of Norma Fiorentino’s water well signaled all was not well in Cabot’s Marcellus shale gas operation in northeast Pennsylvania, state environmental officials are still trying to gauge the impacts of drilling on the water supplies of local residents.

The agency is scheduling another round of tests to see whether methane levels in Dimock water wells are safe, Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed this week. It's the latest step in an investigation that literally began with a bang on New Year's Day, 2009. The explosion of the Fiorentino well prompted an investigation by the DEP that concluded water wells serving at least 19 homes contained explosive levels of natural gas that had migrated underground from Cabot’s nearby drilling operations.  Since then, dozens of water wells in Susquehanna County have been taken off line due to methane contamination.

Some of the Dimock residents agreed to a settlement with Cabot, negotiated by the DEP, that compensated the parties with payments worth twice the assessed value of their properties, and systems to filter their water. Others have held out. They believe the systems, which require maintenance, are not an effective answer to the problem and do not filter other harmful chemicals associated with drilling. The settlement was finalized in 2010 under DEP Secretary John Hanger (now a gubernatorial candidate).  Hanger, who headed Governor Ed Rendell’s DEP, had originally pushed for an $11 million infrastructure project, to be paid for by Cabot, to restore fresh water to the residents. Cabot opposed the plan for a water line, and the administration withdrew it soon after Tom Corbett, an industry supporter, was elected governor.

Although Cabot continues to develop the Marcellus Shale throughout Susquehanna County, the DEP has banned the company from drilling within a 9-square mile area around Carter Road until it fixes an unremitting methane problem there.

Working with the settlement as a blueprint, Cabot has restored water to some but not all homes through special filtration systems or bottled water. But problem areas persist. Several polluted homes have been abandoned, including two on Carter Road bought by Cabot. The company bought 1101 Carter Road, once home to outspoken fracking activists Craig and Julie Sautner, and demolished the ranch house last year. It then sold the vacant parcel to a neighbor for a fraction of the purchase price, with a condition written in the deed that no residence could ever be built there. Late last year, Cabot bought the home of Mike Ely, on the south end of Carter Road, although the company has not answered questions about its plans for the contaminated property.

Several other homes in the area remain vacant after having been sold to other parties, reportedly for interest in mineral rights. Three vacant homes happen to be near Cabot’s failed Costello gas well, which officials have indentified as a possible source of methane pollution.  This week, Connolly reiterated that the Costello well, near the intersection of the south end of Carter Road and State Route 3023, was “unviable” and “”remedial work is continuing at the gas well, and Cabot and DEP continue to evaluate results at the water wells.”  In addition to fluctuating methane levels, previous tests have shown levels of iron and manganese that were elevated but within standards in some water samples. Elevated levels of these elements are “not uncommon during gas migration,” she reported.

Before Cabot can resume drilling in the banned zone, Connolly said, the company must “demonstrate compliance” with the 2010 Consent order. “We have scheduled another round of testing to determine whether the gas migration event has ceased,” she added. Connolly could not immediately say how many homes will be included in the sampling collection. Sources in the field told me that the DEP plans to test all 19 homes listed in the consent agreement, but that the agency has not been granted access to all the homes.

As I have found with many stories about shale gas, a central problem is a lack of information. Some of this is because state regulators, dependent on updates from companies that are exempt from many disclosure laws, are still trying to figure out exactly what is going on. And some of it is due to the fact that companies are reluctant to share certain information that casts operations in a negative light. This is all complicated by some residents who feel what is happening on their property is their business, others who want to show the world what they want the world to see, and still others working in good faith to expose and understand problems with the intention of making things better. In short the problem is cast in a muddle of projections from stakeholders with widely divergent interests and ideological footing. Chief among these is Cabot, which possesses the facts about what is happening at its restricted sites and underground, test results, along with rights to the land under question.

In addition to speaking with Connolly and people in the field, I have called and emailed Cabot spokesman George Stark over a period of months for an update. Here is one of my email queries from Dec. 10. 2013:

Hi George,
I’m following up on Cabot’s recent purchase of Mike Ely’s property on Carter Road and have some questions related to that:
Why did Cabot buy the property? 
What plans does the company have for it?  
What is the status of the nearby Costello well? Is it all fixed?
Does the company expect to be able to resume development in the 9-square mile “no drill zone”?
Also, a question related to the former Sautner property now owned by the Mayes: Why did Cabot forever prohibit building a home on the property as part of the land covenant?
 Here is Stark’s response, which came a month later, on Jan. 9, after I left several phone messages:
Tom,
Got your message yesterday about the former Ely property. 
Cabot entered into a private business transaction with the prior owner of the property. The sale was agreed to by both parties and we are now the current owners. 
George

Trying to apply his answer to the questions at hand in any meaningful way was fruitless, so I emailed Stark again:

Hi George 
Thanks for responding. But your statement does not answer any of my questions. Here they are again: 
Why did Cabot buy the property? 
What plans does the company have for it? 
What is the status of the nearby Costello well? Is it all fixed? 
Does the company expect to be able to resume development in the 9-square mile “no drill zone”? 
Also, a question related to the former Sautner property now owned by the Mayes: Why did Cabot forever prohibit building a home on the property as part of the land covenant?

That was January 9. Since then I have also left voicemails. I am still waiting for a reply. If Stark’s response, or lack of a response, has any journalistic value in the meantime, it illustrates how some companies deal with these kinds of unpleasant questions. They ignore them, or offer a statement of fact that appears to be authoritative but is actually irrelevant.

There are people on all sides of the debate over the merits and risks of shale gas development who share a sense or frustration over lack of information. A group of drilling proponents called Dimock Proud has been especially critical of the DEP for implementing the no-drilling zone in Dimock without engaging all the people who live there, including those eager to see shale gas development proceed. In their view, the DEP has been operating too much out of the public eye. The group represents people who are in position to make money when Cabot drills on their property. The Dimock Proud web site features letters to the DEP complaining that the agency has ignored their requests for information -- specicially, explanations of the no drill zone around the problem wells and why the ban applies to people in the 9-square mile area who want to see their shale gas developed. The group stresses this compaint:

Dimock landowners have written you countless letters, signed petitions that we sent to you, and absolutely begged you to let us out of that arbitrary 9-square miles. You did nothing! You didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the petitions.

The controversy over drilling and fracking in Dimock is one of many in countless communities in dozens of developing shale gas basins across the country. Some problems are unique and some universal. But Dimock, just across the border of New York State, was one of the first where the media spotlight focused intensely on the gas boom that is transforming the country. And given the persistence of problems there, it's where it might also shine the longest.


12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the summary/update of the situation in Dimock, Tom.

    As you note, "a central problem is a lack of information." Both Cabot and the DEP seem to believe that the public has no right to know what is going on. That doesn't seem like a very democratic approach, to say the least.

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  2. I believe DEP is responding to Dimock Proud's persistent pleas to open up the 9 sq. mile drilling ban and so DEP is willing to test homes in that area to see what the methane levels are and other elements. They will again find super high levels at some homes which I have seen the test results in 2013. This area will not be opened up for drilling. And the settlement was only twice the assessed value of the properties and not the market value, so the settlement amounts are much lower than imagined. George Stark is illusive and not willing to be transparent and the same for the company he works for, Cabot. George Stark signed my motion for an injunction to keep me off Cabot lands. Cabot is still trying to "fix" the leaking Costello 1 gas well after about a year's attempt. They do not want to admit defeat and have to plug/seal another gas well in Dimock. Cabot is now at 520 DEP violations in our county since 2008. Why are they still permitted to operate ? that is my question to DEP and our Governor ....

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  3. Cabot should spend as much to plug and permanently abandon the wells they have Effed Up , as they do on Propaganda Ads on WNEP and in all local Media trying to be viewed as Good Neighbors. If My "Good Neighbor" Poisoned my well they would be in Prison!

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  4. Now this is environmental journalism. I'm not a journalist so my opinion has to be taken with a grain of salt. However, if journalism is anything like music, I know when it's good. For this post we got background. We got context. We get an understanding of the information collection process. We frustratingly don't know where the author stands (that whole unbiased thing). And we're left with an understanding that if we need to get to the root of environmental issues in 2014 America, we'll have to do some digging on our own.

    If I may give an opinion on this. The nexus between energy (all industry for that matter) and environmental hasn't changed much in 40 years. The owners (in this case energy producers) want its interest moving forward without any thing or one getting in the way. Owners would prefer to have a wall between its interests and the public. Those contracted with the owners are by contract not allowed to talk to the public much or at all. This may include outside council, public relations, environmental consulting, contractors for drilling, contractors for waste management and contractors for operations of the wells.

    We'd like to think that as individuals we can make a difference. New Yorkers can feel good (and warm) about themselves for stopping fracking - for the time being. As Pennsylvanians are bearing the brunt of natural gas production impact right now. As a wise man once said to me, "it's always better to go second in the environment and energy business.

    Individuals are making a difference. However, in most cases, these individuals have become martyrs more than successful plaintiffs. Unless you own thousands of acres next to the planned Pebble mine in Alaska and have NRDC on the case.

    What has changed in 40 years is that the State or in this case the state of Pennsylvania and the US EPA are AWOL (absent with/out leave). This is why there's little being doing with climate change acceleration and there's an unfettered and screw human health and the environment style energy push be it oil, gas or tar sands.

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    1. Which means, I think, that it is the responsibility of average citizens to push very hard to get the federal gov't and state gov'ts to stop protecting polluters. In the long run, ignoring severe local pollution and especially ignoring global climate change will be bad not just for individuals, but for the economy as a whole.

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    2. To illustrate my comment about economic costs--just look at what is happening in Dimock. The reason the answers to the water problem continue to elude officials is that any real and lasting answers (like piping in safe water from elsewhere) are likely to be quite expensive. We already have crumbling infrastructure all over the place in this country--if we're going to pile on the extra costs of fixing things that did not used to be broken before industry broke them, then how are we ever going to get out of the mess we're in and get ourselves prepared to deal with the extra expenses caused by global climate change? People had better wake up and take a hard look at what the next 50-100 years are going to be like if we don't start acting more responsibly ASAP.

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    3. I should have mentioned in my earlier comment that one of the problems this nation is already struggling with is the cost of health care, and when you allow polluters to run rampant, you increase the cost of health care. The fact that people in this nation are going for extended periods of time without something as basic as safe water is an absolute disgrace.

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    4. Too bad the Better business Bureau couldn't give Cabot a bad mark on their record. They really seem to be a soulless bunch.

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    5. Mary,
      My comment is a frustrated screed. I've been reading and participating on many environmental blogs lately and becoming increasingly despondent. Better educated, but glum. Here's my feelings in a nutshell: energy production increases; a story is written; the environment becomes impacted; a story is written; energy production increases even more; a story is written; Washington is wrapped around the proverbial axle; a story is written; newspapers are shutting down or shuttering environment desks; a story is written in a blog; the environment and health become more impacted; a story is written; and on and on.

      Environmental journalism with respect to environmental policy seems like tuckpointing. It looks easy, but is really hard. I tried to tuck point my brick home. About 90 percent of the mortar fell to the ground. What mortar made it between the bricks looked like a face after lipstick was applied on a rollercoaster. Then hired a tuckpointer. Weird dude, but really good at his job. I'm kind of worried about the future of environmental information delivery and the public's interest in gathering this information.

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    6. Michael, I appreciate your analogies. You see why cynicism is an occupational hazard. But there is a lot of good that has come and will continue to come through reporting. It just takes a lot of it to change the world. Risking overgeneralization, I will venture that we live in a time or unique freedom and prosperity, due partly to a long, long push by reformers and journalism as agents for social change over the course of decades and centuries. There is much to be celebrated, and more will come, even if the nature of the media is changing and the outcome is hard to see.

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    7. Personally, I think we are living in times that are altogether too interesting. We have an amazingly lopsided distribution of wealth (which produces an amazingly lopsided distribution of power and makes real democracy difficult to impossible), we have the technology to spy on everyone and anyone, and we have a long list of potential crises including crumbling infrastructure, depletion of fresh water sources, increasingly extreme weather due to global climate change, an impending energy crisis, and climate-change-induced challenges to an already-unsustainable food-production system. We also have a population that is disenchanted with the political system and that possesses limited scientific literacy at a time when a fair degree of scientific literacy is a requirement for making sound choices about the challenges we face. Sounds like the makings of a perfect storm to me--which makes it all the more important to try to get accurate information out to as many people as possible.

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