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 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. 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.
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. 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 NGI, 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 NGI, Dec. 20, 2010; Nov. 23, 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 NGI, Dec. 5; Oct. 24).
Despite the rebuff from Dimock officials, environmental groups and their allies on both sides of the state line 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 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 Dec. 5. He said the Pennsylvania and Atlantic chapters of the Sierra Club and the national office were planning to pay for more.
“I was willing to give them at least one truckload [of water],” Ryan said. “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 [from two recent floods].”
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. “It’s an attempt to get a Pennsylvania community to suggest that there is a problem and they need help.”
Aileo cited recent assertions by the DEP (see NGI, Sept. 5) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Dimock’s water is safe. In a Dec. 2 email to Dimock residents, EPA spokesperson Trish Taylor said there was no immediate health threat to those who use the township’s water.
“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?” Aileo asked. “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.”
Cabot spokesman George Stark told NGI 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. “We’ve installed them in the area and they work very well. 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.”
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 NGI, Oct. 4, 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 NGI, Dec. 6, 2010).
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