Fracking Company to Pay for Public Water System in Rural Pennsylvania Town

Settlement of criminal charges may resolve water contamination after more than a decade.

A fracking operation takes place on leased farm land near Dimock, Pennsylvania, where dairy farms used to dominate. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
A fracking operation takes place on leased farm land near Dimock, Pennsylvania, where dairy farms used to dominate. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

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The Pennsylvania town that became famous when residents ignited methane-infused tap water will be getting a new public water system paid for by a gas driller that admitted causing the contamination.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro has announced a settlement under which Coterra Energy, the parent of Cabot Oil and Gas, will pay $16.29 million toward construction of a water system for the 1,200 residents of Dimock, in Susquehanna County, 150 miles northeast of Harrisburg, who have endured contaminated water since the company started drilling for gas there in 2008.

The company pleaded no-contest to criminal charges, including the Prohibition Against Discharge of Industrial Wastes, a violation of the state’s Clean Streams Law, and agreed to pay for 75 years of water bills for affected residents, plus treatment systems and bottled water while the new water system is under construction.

Shapiro, a Democrat who was elected governor in the November election, said the settlement will finally resolve more than a decade of efforts by regulators and lawyers for the residents to restore potable water to the rural town in a gas-rich area of northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Residents of Dimock have waited far too long for the clean water Pennsylvania’s Constitution is supposed to guarantee all of us,” Shapiro said in a statement on Monday. “People across the country remember what happened here in Dimock, and now they will know the rule of law won the day. Companies will take notice that we won’t allow communities like this to be taken advantage of or forgotten.”

George Stark, a spokesman for Coterra Energy, said after the settlement was announced that the company complies with industry best practices for gas drilling.

“Coterra has worked closely with the Office of Attorney General to resolve historical matters and create a path forward for all parties,” Stark said. “As our operations today showcase, Coterra strives to follow best practices, exceed industry standards, and to continue to be a valuable community partner. We are committed to being a responsible steward of the Commonwealth’s natural resources and will continue to work closely with our landowners and community leaders.”

The charges stemmed from a 2020 Grand Jury report overseen by Shapiro which found the town’s water supply had been polluted with methane, the primary component of natural gas, leading to contamination of private water wells for “multiple” Dimock residents, Shapiro said.

In many cases, residents leased their land to Cabot for gas drilling but then found they were unable to use their water because it contained methane and metals, forcing them to drive long distances to buy bottled water, the attorney general said.

The agreement comes some three months after Shapiro unveiled a settlement with Sunoco Pipeline, builder of several natural gas liquids pipelines across Pennsylvania, in which the company admitted 48 criminal charges stemming from repeated leaks of drilling fluid into waterways during construction over the last five years. In that case, the company agreed to pay $10 million for the restoration of private water supplies.

In Dimock, the town became an international poster-child for anti-fracking campaigners after Gasland, an HBO documentary in 2010, memorably showed a resident setting fire to the water coming from his kitchen tap. The methane that escaped into the local aquifer because of gas drilling also led to an explosion in the private well of one resident in 2009, and produced water that caused headaches and rashes in residents who tried to use it for bathing or laundry.

Numerous residents paraded before the media with bottles of cloudy water, aided by celebrities including the actor Mark Ruffalo.

Victoria Switzer, a longtime Dimock resident and an outspoken critic of the gas industry, praised the settlement, which she said would finally restore clean water for residents after years of denials by Cabot that it was responsible for the contamination.

“That is a huge relief to have the AG come out so forcefully about the Dimock situation and industry,” she said. “For more than a decade, folks were on their own to provide safe water to their homes, families, children.”

But she predicted that the Dimock region, one of the most productive parts of Pennsylvania’s massive Marcellus Shale reserve, will see a lot more gas drilling in future, and that residents will continue to suffer from air and water contamination even when they are connected to public water.

“Living in a shale field is a constant worry,” Switzer wrote in an email. “If you take the time to educate yourself with peer-reviewed health and safety reports, violations, and well integrity reports, you realize people cannot live in the shadow of drilling rigs or next to toxic impoundments or storage tanks.”

Switzer said she was not allowed to disclose details of a 2012 settlement agreed to by Cabot and her lawyers but said that in her fight against the industry she had been “totally abandoned” by the Environmental Protection Agency,  the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and by her state senator, Gene Yaw, a Republican, who she said is a big supporter of the gas industry.

Switzer, a retired school teacher, said she and her husband are planning to move out of Pennsylvania to avoid further exposure to the industry.

The DEP determined that private water supplies were impacted by oil and gas activities in 392 cases statewide between 2009 and 2014, and that 23 cases were in Dimock, according to state data. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on the new settlement.

More than 2,000 studies by universities, physicians and journalists in the last eight years have linked fracking for oil and gas with health impacts, including some cancers, premature deaths among elderly people, respiratory illnesses, and endocrine disruption, according to the latest edition of a compilation of papers by the nonprofits Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York. 

The compilation includes a study by the Yale School of Public Health which found that young children living near gas wells in four heavily fracked counties of southwest Pennsylvania were two to three times more likely to suffer from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, than their peers living further away.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group for Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, referred a request for comment to Coterra.

Rich Raiders, a Pennsylvania-based land-use attorney who formerly represented one Dimock resident, predicted the settlement will lead other gas drillers to take more care to ensure that their activities do not disrupt domestic water supplies.

“This is a meaningful shot across the bow to other oil and gas companies,” he said. “It sets the standard of care for other people who damage drinking water supplies. You just don’t write a check and go away. You make sure these people have water, and if they don’t, you buy them out. You don’t expect people to live on a residential property or a farm that doesn’t have a water supply.”

Raiders said the settlement should cause other drillers to think more carefully about the difficult geological conditions they may find in Pennsylvania before they try to extract gas from it.

“I don’t think some of the early operators in unconventional oil and gas had a real clue on what you have to deal with geologically,” he said. “They came up from Texas and said ‘We do this.’ But we don’t do it that way here.”

David Hess, a former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the settlement is the latest sign that oil and gas companies are now being held more accountable for their effects on the environment than they traditionally have been in a state with a long history of resource extraction.

But even though the people of Dimock now have the prospect of a clean, reliable water supply, others around the state continue to suffer from the effects of the oil and gas industry, he said. “There should be more done to help those people as well.”