Only four drinking water wells in Dimock Township, PA, have methane exceeding the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) suggested action levels, according to data released Tuesday by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which said the study is further evidence that its natural gas drilling operations did not contaminate groundwater in the area.

Methane gas has been present in water wells in the Dimock area for generations, and some residents acknowledge that they were able to ignite their well water prior to Cabot’s drilling operations, according to the Houston-based company.

“We do not believe that our operations caused the Dimock water quality issues,” said Cabot spokesman George Stark. “However, we are committed to addressing the issue and stand ready to immediately install systems that are proven to meet safe drinking water standards.”

The data, collected at six wells by Cabot scientists and at eight wells by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), indicates that a total of four wells tested above the DOI action threshold for methane of 28 mg/liter. The contamination at one well, which is located on property with a wetland, probably came from gas formed as a byproduct of decomposition of organic material, according to Cabot.

DEP chief John Hanger last month unveiled a plan to install a nearly $12 million water line to replace contaminated water wells for 14 affected homes in Dimock (see Daily GPI, Oct. 1). Hanger has said he has seen no evidence that hydraulic fracturing chemicals used to drill for shale gas contaminate underground water supplies (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6).

The new data proves the DEP plan — which Cabot may have to pay for — “is an unwarranted burden” on the state’s taxpayers, Stark said.

“DEP is asking Pennsylvania taxpayers to pay $12 million to fix a pre-existing condition that actually involves only four homes,” he said. “That’s $3 million per home. DEP previously required methane removal systems as the solution and later they inexplicably decided that the Montrose pipeline would be built, in spite of the negatives associated with attempting such a project.”

Stark said Cabot has agreed to purchase state-of-the-art methane treatment systems for the 14 affected homes at a total cost of $193,000. One system has been placed, successfully tested and awaits final DEP approval to complete installation. Eleven of the remaining households are suing Cabot and have refused installation of the systems, he said.

Both industry and community groups charge each other with disseminating misinformation regarding the situation in Dimock. During a sometimes heated question and answer session at the 2010 Marcellus Summit at Penn State earlier this month, Stark addressed the contentious situation with some residents. In response to whether armed guards sometimes travel with Cabot employees, Stark answered affirmatively.

“Can I ask you how you would respond to someone meeting you with a weapon?” Stark asked the questioner. “We were out and we had a resident come meet us with a weapon. I am not going to put our employees in an unsafe situation. So are we on limited occasions having guards go with [Cabot employees], whose job it is to secure them? Yes we are. It is not standard practice by any means, but do we have tensions rising? Yes we do, so we are taking every precaution that we can to ensure the safety of our workers.”

In April DEP ordered Cabot to plug three operating gas wells in the township and take remedial action on a fourth well to address what the department labeled as gas migration that had contaminated 14 water supplies (see Daily GPI, April 19). In addition, DEP fined Cabot $240,000 and ordered the company to install permanent treatment systems in the homes. Cabot also was prohibited from drilling any new wells in a nine-square-mile area around Dimock until April 2011.

DEP investigators last month determined that three additional water supplies serving four residences had been contaminated by migrating gas caused by Cabot’s drilling activities, which the producer disputed (see Daily GPI, Sept. 22). At the same time, Cabot said several toxic chemicals that had been found in Dimock-area water samples had not been used in its hydraulic fracturing operations.

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