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Dimock Township Refuses to Back Water Deliveries

Exasperated with being at the center of a pitched debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), elected officials in Dimock Township, PA, voted unanimously Monday evening to decline an offer by the city of Binghamton, NY about 30 miles away, to deliver potable water supplies to some of the town's residents.

Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan had offered the township a mutual aid agreement for the water at the request of several Dimock residents who, up until the end of November, were receiving water from Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

"We weren't comfortable signing the mutual aid agreement, but anybody that wants to bring water down to the Carter Road area is more than welcome to," Dimock Township Supervisor Matthew Neenan told NGI's Shale Daily on Tuesday. He declined to comment further, other than to confirm that the township board voted 3-0 against the agreement.

Opponents of the scheme to bring in water from New York point to the fact that agencies of both the federal and state governments have said there is nothing wrong with Dimock's water, labeling it "a bizarre effort to obtain publicity rather than any serious attempt to deal with a true water problem. We are just a ploy."

Eleven households in the Carter Road area of the township had been receiving potable water from Cabot for months, and in some cases, years, following the explosion of a private water well on Jan. 1, 2009 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 26, 2009). The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) investigated and said Cabot was responsible for methane contamination in water wells serving 19 households, a charge the Houston-based company denies (see Daily GPI, April 19, 2010).

Cabot settled the issue with the DEP in December 2010 without accepting blame, but nevertheless agreeing to pay the affected residents $4.1 million and provide whole-house gas mitigation systems. Eight of the households agreed to the settlement, but 11 households found the company's offer insufficient, filed a lawsuit in federal court while receiving potable water from Cabot (see Shale Daily, Dec. 17, 2010; Daily GPI, Nov. 6, 2009).

In October the DEP said Cabot could discontinue the water deliveries by Nov. 30 because the company had satisfied the terms of the settlement. A Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board (EHB) judge affirmed that decision in a ruling on Nov. 30 (see Shale Daily, Dec. 2; Oct. 20).

Despite Monday's rebuff from Dimock officials, environmental groups and their allies on both sides of the state line -- including Ryan -- appear poised to continue providing potable water for free or at a discounted rate to the 11 households while they continue to challenge the settlement.

Jason Pitt, press secretary for the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Reform campaign, told NGI's Shale Daily that the organization's Pennsylvania chapter paid about $425 for a tanker truck to deliver 1,500 gallons of potable water from Binghamton to Dimock on Monday. It was the first time the families had water delivered to their homes since Nov. 30.

"We're going to keep pushing the local governments and then the state government to take a closer look at this and try to find a long-term solution," Pitt said Tuesday.

According to Pitt, the Pennsylvania and Atlantic chapters of the Sierra Club were each planning to pay for another shipment. He said the national office was also planning to pay for at least one shipment as well.

"I was willing to give them at least one truckload [of water]," Ryan said Monday. "I'll have to see what my city council would like to do, but I felt like I had the authority to at least give one truckload full because of all of the mutual aid we've got."

Ryan said Binghamton is awash with mutual aid after the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated the city a disaster area following two devastating floods since 2006, including Hurricane Irene in August. He said communities all around the region helped Binghamton get back on its feet.

"We have some mutual aid from our neighbors," Ryan said, adding that Dimock is about 30 miles from the city. "To me, this is just about being a good neighbor."

But not everyone sees Ryan's offer as a gesture of neighborly goodwill.

"This is just an attempt to embarrass Pennsylvania," William Aileo -- a retired attorney who helped organize Enough Already, an informal group of Dimock area residents and businesses that support shale gas development -- told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday. "It's an attempt to get a Pennsylvania community to suggest that there is a problem and they need help. It's almost like we're a Third World nation that needs help from some outside sources to deal with a problem that we're not big enough to face, which is nuts."

Aileo cited recent assertions by the DEP (see Shale Daily, Sept. 6) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Dimock's water is safe, the latter agency having made that statement in an email on Friday.

"There is no problem with the water," Aileo said. "It's been independently tested and both the DEP and the EPA have said that it is safe to drink. [So] why should a municipality ignore the facts and execute a document that suggests there is a need for some sort of remedial relief, when the reality is there is no need for remedial relief? It's a bizarre effort to obtain publicity rather than any serious attempt to deal with a true water problem. We are just a ploy."

In an email sent to Dimock residents on Friday, EPA spokesperson Trish Taylor said the agency had conducted a preliminary review and screening of well sample data provided by residents and the DEP.

"While we are continuing our review, to date, the data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users," Taylor wrote.

Cabot spokesman George Stark told NGI's Shale Daily that, to his knowledge, the 11 Dimock households suing the company had asked the EPA to get involved and perform its own testing. He wasn't sure how Friday's announcement would affect the ongoing dispute.

"We have been trying to regularly test [the 11 households'] water and offer them a treatment system," Stark said Monday. "We've installed them in the area and they work very well. The EPA's actions have been very consistent with our actions. We've been doing sampling for several years and saying that their water is clean and meets federal drinking water standards. Now the EPA has said so, too."

Loren Salsman -- a Carter Road area resident who allowed Cabot to install a whole-house gas mitigation system and, according to Aileo, a member of Enough Already -- raved about the system in a blog produced by Energy In Depth, an industry-backed shale gas education initiative.

"Obviously, I am happy with the treatment system, but ultimately I wanted the aquifer that feeds my well fixed," Salsman wrote last August. "Cabot and DEP came to an agreement that Cabot would take various actions -- including specific well improvements -- and [would provide all of the affected] families with treatment systems and a financial settlement worth twice our property values.

"My last two sample results show the methane in my well is back down to 7 mg/l, right back where I started and proving that issues can be successfully resolved."

But Craig Sautner, one of the Dimock residents who was receiving water from Cabot and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the company, lauded Ryan's actions in an interview Monday.

"Mayor Ryan stepped up to the plate and came through for us," Sautner told NGI's Shale Daily. "No one from our own state helped us. We're hurting here. We've got people who have resorted to pulling water out of their creeks and ponds just to have water in their houses. That's not a way to live."

On Nov. 30, EHB Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. denied a request by the 11 households for an emergency restraining order because they could not demonstrate immediate and irreparable injury from the water deliveries being stopped. According to court documents filed in the case -- Ronald Carter Sr., et al., v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., No. 2011-165-L -- Labuskes has given both sides until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to submit briefs over another, nonemergency restraining order over the water deliveries.

The 11 households -- 20 plaintiffs in total -- appealed the DEP's settlement with Cabot to the EHB on Jan. 11, alleging that the DEP negotiated in secret and in bad faith, incorrectly calculated property damages and restored Cabot's ability to resume full permitting.

The appellants also claim that the settlement undermined a parallel lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania -- Norma J. Fiorentino, et al., v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and Gas Search Drilling Services Corp., No. 09-cv-2284 -- and scuttled a proposal for a 12-mile water pipeline system that would have connected their homes to municipal water (see Daily GPI, Oct. 1, 2010). A judge ultimately denied Cabot's motion to have the Fiorentino case dismissed, but the water pipeline project was abandoned after the settlement was reached (see Shale Daily, Dec. 1, 2010).

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