Tests: Pa. gas drilling town’s water still fouled

October 15, 2011 • Business

A drilling rig is near a barn and bales of hay Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 in Springville, Pa. State regulators blame faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp for leaking methane into the groundwater in nearby Dimock, Pa. It was the first serious case of methane migration related to the Pennsylvania 3-year-old drilling boom, raising fears of potential environmental harm throughout the giant Marcellus Shale gas field. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

DIMOCK, Pa. (AP) — Three years after residents first noticed something wrong with their drinking-water wells, tanker trucks still rumble daily through this rural northeastern Pennsylvania village where methane gas courses through the aquifer and homeowners can light their water on fire.

One of the trucks stops at Ron and Jean Carter’s home and refills a 550-gallon plastic “water buffalo” container that supplies the couple with water for bathing, cleaning clothes and washing dishes. A loud hissing noise emanates from the vent stack that was connected to the Carters’ water well to prevent an explosion — an indication, they say, the well is still laced with dangerous levels of methane.

Recent testing confirms that gas continues to lurk in Dimock’s aquifer.

“We’re very tired of it,” says Jean Carter, 72. Tired of the buffalo in their yard, tired of worrying about the groundwater under their house, and tired of the fight that has consumed Dimock every day since the fall of 2008.

Like everyone else here, the Carters are eager to turn the page on the most highly publicized case of methane contamination to emerge from the early days of Pennsylvania’s natural-gas drilling boom. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston-based energy firm held responsible and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for polluting the groundwater, is just as anxious to resume drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock that has been placed off-limits to the company until it repairs the damage.

State regulators blame faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot for leaking methane into Dimock’s groundwater. It was the first serious case of methane migration connected to Pennsylvania’s 3-year-old drilling boom, raising fears of potential environmental harm throughout the giant Marcellus Shale gas field. Drilling critics point to Dimock as a prime example of what can and does go wrong.

Methane from gas-drilling operations has since been reported in the water supplies of several other Pennsylvania communities, forcing residents to stop using their wells and live off water buffaloes and bottled water. Though gas companies often deny responsibility for the pollution, the state has imposed more stringent well-construction standards designed to prevent stray gas from polluting groundwater.

Dimock’s long quest for clean water may finally be reaching a critical stage.

After a series of false starts, Cabot, one of the largest drillers in the Marcellus, said it has met the state’s Oct. 17 deadline to restore or replace Dimock’s water supply, installing treatment systems in some houses that have removed the methane.

Residents who have filed suit against Cabot disagree, saying their water is still tainted and unusable. Another homeowner claims the $30,000 treatment system that Cabot put in failed to work.

Ultimately, it will fall to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to decide whether Cabot has fulfilled its obligation to the residents, whose story was highlighted in last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland.”

If regulators sign off, the company plans to resume work on a dozen gas wells in Dimock. And, in a move sure to infuriate the residents, it will also stop paying for water deliveries to the Carters and several others whose wells were tainted with methane and, some say, toxic chemicals.

It’s not clear how DEP will respond to Cabot’s bid to restart operations, but spokeswoman Katherine Gresh said the agency is not under any deadline.

“DEP will continue to require Cabot to do this work until we are satisfied that the methane migration problem has ceased, regardless of how long it takes,” she said via email.

An odorless, colorless, tasteless gas, methane is commonly found in Pennsylvania groundwater. Sources include swamps, landfills, coal mines and gas wells. Methane is not known to be harmful to ingest, but at high concentrations it’s explosive and can lead to asphyxiation.

Despite company assurances of clean water, testing reveals that methane persists in Dimock’s aquifer.

A Cabot contractor who sampled the water in mid-September found an extremely high level of gas in the enclosed space of a water well owned by Craig Sautner, who is among the plaintiffs suing Cabot. Test results supplied by DEP indicate that five more homes had levels of dissolved methane that exceeded the standard set by a Login to read more

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