Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Activists and EPA Deliver Safe Water to Families with Wells Polluted after Gas Drilling

 EPA found toxic chemicals that pose health concerns

Residents of Dimock Pennsylvania were not warned of possible risks to their well water in 2008 when they were asked to lease their land for gas drilling and hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale.

Soon after Cabot Oil & Gas began drilling the gas wells in 2008, Dimock res­i­dents began expe­ri­enc­ing severe prob­lems with their well water. Water became yellow, cloudy and contained a flammable gas. The most attention-getting prob­lem hap­pened on New Years Day in 2009, when one water well exploded with great force, moving a concrete slab weighing thousands of pounds. The explosion was caused by high-level gas contamination, presumably ignited by a spark from the water pump. Fortunately, the damage occurred outside the home and there were no injuries. Several other water wells also exploded, and nine others were found with so much gas that one homeowner was told to open a window when taking a bath. Propublica reported on these stories, calling Dimock "ground-zero" for drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Fif­teen fam­i­lies with con­t­a­m­i­nated well water filed a fed­eral law­suit against Cabot Oil & Gas in 2009. The com­pany insisted, without any evidence, that the methane in Dimock water wells occurred nat­u­rally through biological processes near the surface, like rotting plants (later, scientists identified shale gas as the contaminant). Under Gov. Ren­dell, the Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) took action and fined Cabot for the gas migra­tion inci­dents, barred it from further drilling in the com­mu­nity, and ordered it to pay for a pipeline to bring­ safe drinking water to Dimock res­i­dents. Cabot did not put in a water pipeline, but agreed to pay for tem­po­rary water sup­plies, which involved bottled water and also truck deliveries of bulk water.

In May 2011, Dimock resident-turned-activist, Craig Sautner (photo below), told a crowd of about 200 at Corning West High School in New York, “I’ve been abused by the gas industry like you wouldn't believe” during his three-year ordeal.
Sautner holding a sample of his family's well water - AP
Mr. Sautner closed his remarks in New York’s Southern Tier with an ominous warning: “On the ride up here, I saw what beautiful country you have here. Don't let [the gas industry] ruin it on you.”

In January 2011, under administration of a new governor, Tom Cor­bett, Cabot Oil & Gas asked the DEP for approval to stop the water deliv­er­ies by the end of Novem­ber. Cabot installed water filters in the homes and said Dimock’s water was safe to drink. The DEP agreed to reverse its ear­lier rul­ings, deciding that Cabot had ful­filled the water agree­ment. Sautner and other residents said the filtered water is undrinkable. Still, as of December 1, 2011, Cabot cut off water delivery to the affected Dimock families.

For three years after 2008, the affected Dimock families lived without safe tap water from their wells. They were dependent on water from Cabot Oil & Gas, the shale-gas fracking company that polluted their well water. They now had no water.

Anti-fracking groups and concerned citizens from Pennsylvania and New York joined together to help get water to Dimock. On December 6th, 2011, clean, New York water was delivered to eleven families in Dimcok. Actor/activist Mark Ruffalo who lives in a Catskill region where land is leased for gas drilling, and a hydro-geologist representing Dimock residents in a lawsuit against Cabot, as well as others spoke at a rally outside the home of a Dimock resident. Below is a video of a news report on that event:

Subsequently, after prodding by Dimock residents and activists, federal environmental regulators reopened their investigation of Dimock water wells. A tanker of water from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Dimock on January 20, 2012. This will be a regular delivery to four homes as the EPA investigates the impact of natural gas drilling on Dimock's drinking water.

EPA toxicologist found four households’ well water contaminated with arsenic and other hazardous substances “at levels that present a public health concern” (data of Cabot and PADEP). Some of these “are not naturally found in the environment,” EPA officials said, and may have been released by drilling activities. Among the toxic substances found in the well water were:

Arsenic, classified by the US government and World Health Organization as a known human carcinogen, an element sometimes found in “elevated concentrations” in groundwater because of drilling;
Barium, a common constituent of drilling fluids; long-term ingestion at high levels can cause kidney damage;
Phthalates, a synthetic plastic chemical and probable human carcinogen, according to EPA;
Glycol compounds common in drilling fluids and associated with damage to kidneys, the nervous system, lungs, heart, testicular damage and anemia;
Manganese, an naturally occurring element that can damage the nervous system at high levels;
Phenol, found in some drilling fluids; at high levels can cause irregular heartbeat, liver damage and skin burns;
Sodium, compounds found in some drilling fluids, at high levels can cause high blood pressure.

Federal officials said that although the investigation has not been completed, they have concluded, based on samplings to date (by Cabot and PADEP), that a “chronic health risk exists” for the wells in question.

The EPA will conduct its own sampling of 61 water wells in Dimock after reviewing data collected by the state, Cabot Oil & Gas and other firms raised concerns about groundwater contamination connected to Cabot's expansive drilling operations in the area.

The water deliveries were met by families and drilling critics rallying in support of the EPA's actions who accused state regulators of failing to help them and enabling bad practices by the industry. "The EPA's stated policy is to step in where states have failed to enforce," filmmaker Josh Fox said, "which means the state of Pennsylvania and Gov. Tom Corbett has failed in its obligation to protect the citizens of Pennsylvania."

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