Airing last night on HBO, Gasland 2 focuses considerably on pollution of 18 water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania by methane and the proposed extension of a water line to the families whose water was contaminated by Cabot Oil and Gas. Josh Fox and I agree that mistakes in gas drilling by Cabot caused methane to pollute the water wells of 18 families, but you won't see the real story of the proposed water line to serve those 18 families in Gasland 2 or what DEP did from 2008 to 2011. See also:
Here is what really happened in the fight with Cabot to clean up the groundwater and to build a proposed water line from Montrose to Dimock.
To recap, Cabot made mistakes in gas drilling that caused methane to pollute 18 water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania. That conclusion was established by an extensive investigation done by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under my leadership.
Methane in water is not toxic but can be explosive once concentrations reach high enough levels. In short, it can be dangerous, even deadly. Indeed, one of the 18 water wells did explode in January 2009. To repeat the problem in Dimock was methane, not fracking fluids, and methane in water at high concentrations is a serious problem that can be dangerous and certainly can make a home worthless.
To make a long story shorter, by the Spring of 2010, I was completely unsatisfied with Cabot's response to the pollution of 18 water wells and its efforts to remedy the problem for the affected families. As a result, I concluded a Consent Order with Cabot that had many provisions. For example, the Consent Order included not issuing for a period any new drilling permits to Cabot statewide; stopping Cabot from drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Dimock area; requiring Cabot to plug or repair gas wells to stop the source of the methane migration; install machines at each of the 18 water wells to get methane out of the water; to provide water deliveries to the 18 families impacted; and substantial fines that eventually added up to more than $1 million. The order cumulatively would cost Cabot many millions of dollars in fines, lost investment, and lost revenues of gas that would not be produced.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also was testing regularly the affected families water, and methane levels were still too high in most of the 18 water wells by the summer of 2010. I was determined to do everything that I could to clean the groundwater and to restore good water to the 18 families. As a result, knowing that in a few past cases of industrial pollution of groundwater, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the state had extended water lines to affected families, I put on the table doing the same for the 18 affected families in Dimock.
Cabot, however, refused to agree to pay for the extension of the water line from Montrose to the Dimock area that would cost $12 million. After discussing the water line, Cabot's opposition to it, Pennsylvania paying up front for the water line, and then suing Cabot to recover the money with Governor Rendell and his Chief of Staff, Steven Crawford, I was authorized to move ahead with building the water line, even though there was no guarantee that the state would prevail in litigation to recover from Cabot the $12 million needed to build the water line. This was a bold, strong but difficult attempt to remedy the impact on the 18 families.
Without Cabot agreeing to pay and without a court order for it to pay for the water line, the initial financing would come from a separate state agency called Pennvest that had its own board on which I served as Vice-Chairman. Importantly, the Pennvest board was not unanimous in support of the project, with powerful Republican state senators on it opposed to building the water line and other board members conditionally supportive. Pennsylvania American Water Company that provided public water in Montrose, however, agreed to build the water line from Montrose to the affected families, if financing was made available.
By September 2010, I announced in a public meeting in Dimock that the water line would be built. Soon after that announcement, massive local opposition to the water line erupted and was partly the result of Cabot encouraging the opposition. For example, one evening to reach the home of one of the 18 families whose water had been polluted by Cabot, I walked through a protest of more than 100 people outside the home who were opposing the extension of the water line and who were supporting Cabot. That was quite a night for another reason: It ended after midnight with a deer totaling my car, as I drove 3 hours back to my home in Hershey.
When the sun came up the next morning, I knew that the local opposition itself could well stop the water line. Another threat to the water line was Republican legislative and local opposition to it and the looming election for Governor.
In November 2010, Republican Tom Corbett won the Governor's seat, and he had run openly as an unequivocal proponent of gas drilling and as friend of the gas industry. The combination of strong local opposition, Republican legislative opposition, and the election of Tom Corbett meant that the water line was not going to be built. Elections have consequences.
The water line would be dead as soon as Governor Rendell and I left office, and Tom Corbett took office in January 2011. Also though the change in the Governor's chair sealed the water line's fate, a further blow to the water line came after the November 2010 election in the form of good news.
The plugging and repairing of gas wells was working to lower methane levels in the groundwater in the area. Fourteen of the 18 water wells had methane levels reduced below the "action level" in testing that came back after the election. This was good news for which a lot of people had worked hard to make happen. But it also meant that only 4 families had a water supply with too much methane in it and that further weakened the case for building a water line from Montrose.
After the November 2010 election, I had a choice to make about the 18 families and Cabot's pollution of their water. I could do nothing more and leave. Taking that option would likely have kept me out of Gasland 2 and that would likely have pleased by mother. Yet, throwing in the towel would have meant stopping fighting for the 18 families who had been harmed and would have meant Cabot paid no compensation to them.
After the November election, instead of throwing in the towel, I could try Plan B.
Plan B was an attempt to hold Cabot financially responsible by winning a payment from Cabot that would go to the 18 families, in addition to requiring Cabot to keep working to get the methane out of the groundwater that supplied all 18 families. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection concluded in December 2010 a new consent order with Cabot that required continued work to remove methane from gas wells that leaked into groundwater in Dimock, that prohibited Cabot from restarting gas drilling or fracking in the Dimock area, pay more fines, and pay a total of $4.1 million into 18 separate escrow accounts for the impacted families.
The escrow payments averaged $201,000 and were calculated to be twice the property value of the home affected. Escrow payments would be required even for the 14 properties where testing showed methane had been reduced to safe levels. Importantly, the Consent Order stated that payments would be made without requiring any family to drop other litigation or sign a confidentiality agreement. This order bound only Cabot and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and did not bind the families who again were free to continuing litigating and speaking.
It was important to establish that a drilling company who pollutes a water well must pay twice the property value of the home, even if subsequent clean up efforts of the water succeed. Two times the property value served both the needs to compensate and punish. The principle of paying twice the property value, even if pollution is removed, is important and should become statutory law.
One of the tragedies in Dimock is the discord within the community over gas drilling. That discord extended to the 18 families which divided into two groups--11 families retained private counsel and sued Cabot, but 7 families did not sue. In my book, they had all suffered contamination as a result of mistakes made by Cabot and had experienced tremendous stress. After I left office in January 2011, I was told that 7 of the families who had not sued Cabot did take money from the individual escrow accounts but the 11 who did sue Cabot did not.
Gasland 2, however, wrongly states that none of the 18 families took the escrow money. Some of the families certainly did and wrote and called to thank me. Gasland 2 also does not mention the number $4.1 million that was placed into escrow accounts.
Those payments and the principle that gas drilling companies who pollute water wells pay twice the property value, even if clean up works, are the strongest financial remedies ever won by a regulatory agency for shale gas pollution. They come on top of requiring Cabot to plug gas wells to clean up and that destroyed millions of dollars of its investments and prevented receipt of millions more in revenues from selling the gas. They come on top of requiring Cabot to pay $1.3 million in fines, install machines to remove methane, and to deliver water to impacted families.
I am proud of the investigation that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did that established methane from mistakes in gas drilling contaminated 18 water wells. I regret greatly that some in the gas industry continue to say nothing happened at Dimock. That is completely false.
I am also proud of the fight that I led to get the methane out of the water in the Dimock area. Methane was reduced to safe levels at 14 of the 18 water wells by December 2010. I am also proud of the fight I led against Cabot to try and build a water line even though that failed. I am also proud of the fight that I led to make Cabot pay twice the property value and to compensate families whose water was polluted.
Finally, for all the reasons stated above, the fight to build a water line became impossible by the time of the election of Tom Corbett in November 2010. That is the real story of the proposed water line in Dimock.