Pennsylvania’s Water Woes

In August of 2008, Cabot Gas & Oil began drilling by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, residents of Dimock began to notice disturbing changes in their water. They would soon discover it was contaminated with harmful levels of methane and toxic chemicals.

“My neighbor’s water was bright orange. They had samples of it sitting on a windowsill and it was just shocking,” said Dimock resident Victoria Switzer.

If methane gas collects in confined spaces, it can trigger deadly or damaging explosions. One such explosion occurred in a Dimock resident’s drinking water well on January 1, 2009, with a blast so intense it lifted a concrete slab weighing several thousand pounds. The event made national headlines and dubbed Dimock as “Ground Zero” for the anti-fracking movement.

“The industry likes to state that their number-one safety precaution is thousands of layers of impermeable rock and that essentially there is no possible way for the methane to get into the ground water,” said Claire Sandberg, executive director of Water Defense. “And we know that the available science conclusively debunks that. The only peer-reviewed study that has been done on groundwater contamination from fracking has found that it occurs a majority of the time, so there is something really wrong here if methane is getting into the groundwater a majority of the time, often at explosive levels of methane.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) concluded “the presence of dissolved methane and/or combustible gas in…affected water supplies occurred within six months of completion of drilling of one or more of the Cabot Wells. As such, Cabot is presumed to be responsible for the pollution.” Cabot disagreed with the DEP’s findings, claiming their own water tests determined Dimock’s water was already contaminated with an explosion-risk quantity of methane. Residents cried foul.

“You put your hand down a couple of inches and you can’t see your hand, that’s how much gas there is in it. And they’re telling me it was that way all my life,’’ said Bill Ely, who has lived in his Dimock home for nearly 50 years and said his well water was crystal clear until Cabot’s arrival.

Originally, the DEP wanted Cabot to pay for the construction of a water pipeline in Dimock, but that plan was later revised under a new administration. In place of a pipeline, the revision ordered Cabot to install a “gas mitigation device,” or a water filter, at each affected residence. Cabot complied and installed filters in some households and “continues to offer to install DEP-approved water treatment systems to affected residents,” adding, “All of the homeowners who accepted the methane treatment systems in Dimock have seen a 96%-98% reduction in methane concentrations.” But residents say the filters do not adequately clean out all toxins.

“I don’t see how I could go back on my well. It’s not fit for human consumption,” said Dimock resident Craig Sautner. “The dogs…used the well water—and this is after the filtration system—they threw up right away. If they threw up, what’s it going to do to us? I don’t want to put my family through that.”

In October of 2011, Cabot was given permission by the DEP to discontinue providing water to affected Dimock residences as they had fulfilled the requirements outlined in the revised agreement. The DEP’s decision was strongly opposed.

“If they stop delivering water that means we’re going to have to go back on our same contaminated well, which means I might get hives again, I might pass out in the shower,” said Craig Sautner’s 19-year old daughter, Kelly. “I want to have babies someday and I want to be healthy. I don’t want to have contaminants in my body that shouldn’t be there.”

New York-based Water Defense began organizing water deliveries to Dimock and called on the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to officially intervene. In January 2012, the EPA stepped in to provide water delivery to four homes and conduct water testing at 61 homes. On March 15, the EPA released 11 of the 61 water test results—all of which they said “did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern.”

“We are pleased that data released by EPA today on sampling of water in Dimock confirmed earlier findings that Dimock drinking water meets all regula-tory standards,” Cabot said in a released statement.

But Water Defense and Gasland director Josh Fox claim in four of the six lab results they obtained from Dimock residents, methane levels exceeded Pennsylvania standards, one as high as seven times the state’s limit. They consulted Stephen Penningroth, the technical director of the Certified Water Testing Lab at Cornell University’s Community Science Institute to review the results. His analysis concluded: “All six wells have measurable concentrations of ethane associated with the relatively high concentrations of methane. The presence of methane and ethane together suggests that both may come from shale formations. In other words, the presence of ethane suggests that the methane is deep and thermogenic, not shallow and biogenic.” In addition to methane, hydrocarbon chemicals anthracene, flouranthene, pyrene and benzopyrene were detected in the lab results—all of which have been deemed carcinogenic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even in small doses.

“My well water changes from day to day. One day it could be a little clearer, other days it could be like coffee with milk in it,” Craig Sautner added. “There’s a lot of contaminants in [the water] — [testing] was done by Duke University. There’s a lot of heavy metals…things like strontium, barium, three different types of uranium… there’s no reason why we should be going back on this water.”

In a congressional meeting this past Friday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson requested budget funds for further testing on the environmental effects of fracking, stating: “As I’ve mentioned before, natural gas is an important resource which is abundant in the United States, but we must make sure that the ways we extract it do not risk the safety of public water supplies. This budget continues EPA’s ongoing congressionally directed hydraulic fracturing study, which we have taken great steps to ensure is independent, peer-reviewed and based on strong and scientifically defensible data. Building on these ongo-ing efforts, this budget requests $14 million in total to work collaboratively with the United States Geological Survey, the Department of Energy and other partners to assess questions regarding hydraulic fracturing.”