By Steve McConnell
A natural gas drilling company must provide a permanent supply of water to 13 homes in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County along with correcting problems at its production sites that caused methane to pollute drinking water in this small rural community, environmental regulators said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) slapped Cabot Oil & Gas on Wednesday with a 23-page order – littered with a slew of additional environmental violations – of corrective actions the company must address to eliminate the methane contamination in the hopes of restoring well water in the affected area.
According to the consent order obtained by The Wayne Independent, eight natural gas wells operated by the Texas-based company failed – causing methane to spew into the local aquifer beginning about December 2008. The failures were due to either excessive pressure or “insufficient or improper” underground well casings – which ordinarily prevent this type of incident from occurring. (Methane is the principal component of natural gas).
DEP delineated a nine-square mile “affected area” – home to 62 Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas wells in Dimock Township – centering around Carter Road.
Carter Road is also home to some of the 13 residences that now have methane-infused drinking and bathing water.
The company was fined $120,000 for the methane contamination on Wednesday.
This follows a $56,650 fine for three toxic chemical spills in September that released, in the same township, an estimated 8,000 gallons of an industrial waste associated with Cabot’s natural gas drilling, said environmental regulators and a company spokesperson. Shortly after the spills that also flowed into a local creek and wetland, DEP shutdown Cabot’s operation in the area.
“The goal of the consent order and agreement is to ensure a long-term resolution to issues that have emerged in Dimock,” said DEP Director Kelly Burch. An attempt to call a Cabot spokesperson was unsuccessful by press time on Thursday.
If well water is not fully restored, the company must provide an alternate, long-term solution to supply water to the 13 impacted residences.
The residences were located within 1,300 feet of Cabot’s operations, according to the consent order; drilling began around Carter Road in August 2008.
Carter Road residents have previously told The Wayne Independent that they began drinking bottled water after learning that their wells contained elevated levels of methane, in some instances at a combustible concentration.
Combustion actually occurred in one instance and served as the proverbial wake-up call to the problems here: DEP began its investigation after a concrete slab on top of a resident’s well exploded on New Year’s Day – 2009.
“We weren’t here when it happened,” Norma Fiorentino told The Wayne Independent last spring about what happened to her well. “But we came back and found a big hole in the earth where it was.”
Fiorentino has refused to drink her well water since then.
“You just don’t drink water that explodes,” she said; nearly a year later, the company will now purchase water for her.
The company, which has leased 78 private properties in Wayne County, giving them the right to drill for natural gas, must repair all of its failed natural gas wells by March. If the company does not do so by then, the wells must be plugged.
According to DEP, Cabot has thus far fixed five of the eight failed wells; but three still have “insufficient or improper” casings – meaning that methane may still be seeping through the drilled well, thereby into the local aquifer.
The consent order also detailed four other industrial waste spills reported by the company in Dimock Township.
•September 2008: drilling mud – an industrial waste – flowed into a spring seep in violation of the state’s Clean Streams Law.
•January 2009: 100 gallons of diesel fuel spilled at a well site, caused by a fuel-line leak on a drilling-mud pump.
•February 2009: an estimated 5 to 10 barrels of drilling mud discharged into a field, caused by equipment failure.
•March 2009: drilling mud flowed into a local creek.