Residents of a Pennsylvania town famous for its flammable tap water fear another round of methane contamination after state officials lifted a 12-year ban on drilling for natural gas beneath their feet.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection signed an agreement with Coterra Energy, allowing it to restart harvesting natural gas from a nine-square-mile “box” beneath Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the company’s predecessor, Cabot Oil and Gas, was ejected in 2010 after contaminating numerous private water wells with methane.
Victoria Switzer, a long-time Dimock resident and an outspoken opponent of the gas industry, said she was “depressed and disappointed” by the new consent agreement because it will end the DEP’s testing of her water every three months, and replace that with testing by Coterra.
She’s also worried that plugging more than a dozen old wells in the township will result in the renewed migration of methane into people’s water wells. She argued that DEP should not have allowed a resumption of drilling in a gas-rich area of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale field until residents were connected to the promised public water system.
“The opening of the box should not occur until water is flowing into the homes of the impacted residents and any other family that wants peace of mind when it comes to their life source: their water,” she said.
The new DEP agreement with Coterra places many new restrictions on the company’s gas-harvesting plans, including monitoring new wells for any methane escape, evaluating drinking water wells near its operations and plugging old gas wells that were the source of water contamination. The company will not be allowed to drill vertical wells within the “box” as it did before, but can sink those wells outside the area, and then extend horizontal “laterals” beneath the town, according to the agreement.
Coterra is also required within six months to install, as an interim solution, water-treatment systems to all affected residents who agree to the offer. If the new system is unable to be built for “any reason,” the company must apply to the DEP for permission to operate the interim systems for 30 years, the agreement says.
The document, signed on Nov. 29, also requires the company to pay $16.29 million to install within five years a public water system that would remove the risk of future contamination from nearby gas drilling. That requirement was also part of a plea agreement with Coterra that was reached by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on the same day, in which the company pleaded no-contest to criminal charges stemming from violation of the state’s Clean Streams Law, and agreed to pay the water bills of affected residents for 75 years.
Shapiro, a Democrat who will become governor of Pennsylvania in January, said the plea agreement should be seen by other energy companies as a sign that the authorities will hold them accountable for any future contamination. “Companies will take notice that we won’t allow communities like this to be taken advantage of or forgotten,” he said, announcing the plea deal.
George Stark, a spokesman for Coterra, said after the DEP agreement was disclosed that the company would use best practices and state-of-the-art technology to conduct any future drilling operations.
“This agreement resolves long-standing issues and provides for the responsible and safe development of natural resources located inside the nine-square mile area. It also satisfies the desires of many of the landowners, who communicated their support for such development over the years,” he said.
After initially welcoming the AG’s plea deal, some residents were skeptical or outright hostile in response to the DEP’s decision to allow the resumption of gas drilling in a town that became a poster-child for the human impacts of hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—for natural gas when one resident memorably ignited the water from his kitchen faucet. The incident was widely broadcast in the 2010 Netflix documentary “Gasland.”
Coterra’s interest in restarting development of the Dimock “box” is driven by its rich gas reserves, said Terry Engelder, a Pennsylvania State University geologist who co-authored a study in 2008 that estimated the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio contained at least five times the 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that was produced at the time by the United States, Canada and Mexico combined.
He now estimates the Dimock “box” alone contains about 1.3 trillion cubic feet of gas, worth some $3.9 billion, assuming a market price of $3 per thousand cubic feet. Just a small fraction was harvested by Coterra before regulators closed the box in 2010, and the prospect of renewed access explains the company’s willingness to agree to the criminal charges brought by the attorney general, Engelder said.
“This is both new news for the local royalty owners inside the moratorium area, and the reason why Coterra felt its pockets would become deep enough to plead ‘no contest’ and put up $16 million to supply water to the Dimock folks,” he said.
Still, Dimock’s abundance of gas is not unusual by the standards of the Marcellus in nearby Pennsylvania counties, Engelder said. He estimated that there are about 360 square miles of the field that have similar production characteristics as the nine-square-mile “box” beneath Dimock.
“There is nothing special about the Marcellus under the Dimock area that does not apply to a larger area covering parts of Susquehanna, Bradford, Wyoming, and Sullivan Counties,” he wrote in an email.
Switzer, the Dimock resident and retired schoolteacher, said Shapiro and DEP signing of the two agreements with Coterra on the same day raises her suspicions of a tradeoff in which the company agreed to plead no-contest to the criminal charges in return for being allowed to resume drilling at Dimock.
“It was coming to a head with Coterra opening the box and simultaneously the AG is offering us a water line,” she said. “Can any person believe that they were operating in separate rooms and no one knew about it?”
Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, denied that it shared information with the DEP about the investigation that led to the criminal charges.
“Our office plays no role in DEP’s regulatory decisions and we do not share confidential information about criminal investigations,” Rhoads wrote in an email. “The only information our office provided about the conviction ahead of last month’s announcement was with the victims and the defendant. No exchange of this nature was ever a part of our criminal plea negotiations.”
Jamar Thrasher, spokesman for the DEP, said the two agencies negotiated their agreements separately but that the DEP told Shapiro’s office of its talks with Coterra in September 2022. He said DEP’s negotiations on drilling laterals in the “box” beneath Dimock were underway before DEP knew that the attorney general’s office was in talks with the company on the $16.29 million plea agreement that required building a public water supply.
Once DEP obtained details of the plea agreement, it added references to the public water system and how the company would respond if the system could not be built, he said.
“Our consent order complements the plea agreement by providing a short-term solution, new interim treatment systems, that would improve conditions for the affected homeowners while the public water system is being developed,” Thrasher wrote in an email.
He said the methane contamination that led to the 2010 agreement appears to have come from the vertical portion of the older wells, not from their horizontal sections that are much deeper.
Ray Kemble, a 30-year resident of Dimock, blasted the new agreement as “absolutely illegal” because a requirement in the 2010 document to restore all 19 contaminated water wells has not yet been met, he said.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
Kemble, 67, a retiree who previously owned a tire shop and towing business, predicted that the latest agreement will lead to renewed methane contamination of private water wells. He said his own became contaminated with the gas and four kinds of uranium in 2010, and he has since used water from a “buffalo”—a 1,000-gallon portable tank—that he fills weekly from a nearby hydrant.
“I don’t want any drilling underneath my house at all,” he said. “They will be drilling all these wells right underneath us.”
He called the attorney general’s plea deal “a slap on the wrist” for Coterra, and accused DEP and Shapiro’s office of cooperating by completing both agreements on the same day.
“They knew exactly what was going on because DEP was signing the damn order the same day they were signing the order in court,” he said. “We are just puppets and pawns for the AG’s office. We were just lied to.”
But David Hess, who headed the DEP from 2001 to 2003, argued that the two documents complement each other, as shown by DEP’s agreement incorporating the AG’s requirement that Coterra pays $16.29 million for a new public water system, and that it is enforceable by DEP.
Still, it remains to be seen whether the DEP agreement can prevent recurring contamination despite its extra restrictions, and that will become a new enforcement test for the DEP statewide as well as a new requirement on Coterra at Dimock, Hess said.
“This will be one of the most closely monitored drilling areas in the state as a result of this order,” he said. “Does DEP have the staff resources to hold the company accountable, and do everything it needs to do to regulate oil and gas in other areas? That’s a good question.”