Case Study – Chemical Contamination of Drinking Water in Dimock, PA

This case study involves the chemical contamination of drinking water potentially related to the natural gas drilling process called “fracking” in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Dimock, PA is a small, rural town located in Susquehanna County in the Northeastern region of Pennsylvania.  The Marcellus Shale, a rock formation infused with natural gas, underlies this region.  Gas companies use a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” where huge volumes of water, mixed with sand, chemicals and gels, are injected at high pressure to break the shale and allow natural gas to flow out. Fifteen families in Dimock, PA have sued Cabot Oil & Gas and seek a permanent injunctive order to ban the drilling processes blamed for contamination of their well water.  The families claim that Cabot Oil contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals and known carcinogens and had signed land leases with Cabot Oil & Gas Company in 2006.

The lawsuit states that they have suffered neurologic, gastrointestinal, and dermatologic symptoms from exposure to tainted water and seek compensatory damages in the form of a trust fund to cover their medical expenses.  They also claim that they have had blood test results documenting exposure to heavy metals.  Cabot’s drilling allowed methane to escape into private water wells, and in two cases, caused wellhead explosions due to gas build-up, according to the initial complaint filed by the plaintiffs with the court.

The homes of the families who brought the lawsuit are mostly centered on Carter Road and are within 1,300 feet of eight failed natural gas wells that caused methane to spew into the local aquifer, according to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on November 4, 2009.  Cabot Oil & Gas denies that its operations caused this to occur. Others in the community also allege that their water quality has been compromised.”

Of the fifteen families that claim to have contaminated well water due to natural gas drilling, Craig and Julie Saunter of Carter have been the most vocal in attracting media attention and environmental group allies such as the Sierra Club and the Actor Mark Ruffalo led Water Defense.  A nine square mile moratorium on drilling in this area has been instated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection which prevents land owners and drillers in this area from benefiting from the present natural gas boom.


2 thoughts on “Case Study – Chemical Contamination of Drinking Water in Dimock, PA

  1. The issue of fracking and its effect on the aquifer and well water in Dimock has become a polarizing issue in that rural and bucolic area. The other blog entry on this issue focused on Craig and Julie Saunter and their efforts to get Cabot Oil to own up to contaminating the well water. The Saunters have done a good job at publicizing their plight, having made good use of social media. This blog entry presents the issue in general, with two videos that address both sides of the issue. The first video, showing the actions of Citizens for Clean Water at a Dimock spill site, provides information on a spill, and its images are powerful. But to me, the video, although powerful, might be off-putting because the person narrating and others talking are very angry and excited. They should be, but the upset distracts from the message. The video of the Saunters on the other blog entry was good because they were calm and collected and well-spoken. As to the second video, with those on the other side of the argument, all of the people speaking have a Stepford-wife-like, unreal quality. The gas company is wonderful, it’s given them free water treatment systems and other goodies, and they don’t want that nasty city water piped in. A bit of research shows that Cabot Oil also provided the Saunters with a water treatment system, and that Cabot kept adding things onto the system as more problems showed up; the system was eventually unable to handle the water quality problems. The artificially happy people in this second video are just as irritating as the hyped up people in the first video. Once again, the calm and logical approach that the Saunters appear to have taken, as seen in the video of them, makes a more cogent case.

    Having watched “Gasland,” the independent film about the many problems associated with getting natural gas out of oil shale that underlies a large portion of the United States, I would be protesting loudly if any of the problems in Dimock were happening where I was living, knowing that the companies extracting natural gas from the shale have exemptions from the Clean Water Act and other environmental protection regulations. I am surprised that the Saunters appear to have such a rational, non-screeching approach to this issue; I’m not sure I would be able to maintain my composure. But, in terms of community resilience, the way that the Saunters are tackling this issue must surely be the way to gain more support for their point of view. And the fact that they have become the focal point for local protests reinforces my judgment,

  2. Social media elevates issues without regard for facts to the contrary. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Again we see the media converge on an issue and blow it all out of proportion with blatant disregard for facts. And in the face of facts presented by organizations the media originally support but now present contradictory information, logic and common sense depart at we cling to emotion over facts.
    Residents in the Dimock, PA area knew methane was present in the water for decades so the methane issue is not new. Lighting “water” coming from faucets is not new. Northeast Pennsylvania – where Dimock is located – has a long history of mining. You find methane in mines. Mines have exploded due to methane; it’s why we send in the canary first. Arsenic is found in mining areas. Methane and arsenic have been found in well-water in this region. Coincidence?
    Recent EPA tests have come back indicating the water contains arsenic, but no fracking chemicals. 47 of 60 wells have been tested by the EPA with no cause for concern. After the EPA released their most recent report – the third round of tests – those who relied on the EPA reports as the definitive answer to support their argument then decided the EPA reports were incorrect.
    It is possible the chemicals in the wells have become diluted enough to appear in tests.
    I find it interesting how the media and the residents have held onto the negative reports, disregarded reports indicating the water is safe, and the media ignoring the positive aspects of the situation. Was there cause for concern? I believe initially there was cause. But after rounds of water testing and indications the water is safe, it should have become an irrelevant story.
    Whether the government does anything or does not do anything, someone will be unhappy and use social media to air their grievances. The government paid to remove a complete city due to a mine fire years ago which could not be extinguished (Centralia, PA). Some residents did not leave. They now claim it was a government conspiracy to begin mining the coal again. I’m sure if the government attempted to move these families from Dimock, similar cries would be heard.

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