ENFORCEMENT:

EPA says Dimock water safe, but Cabot still can't drill there

U.S. EPA yesterday ended the latest chapter in the turbulent drilling dispute in Dimock, Pa., finding that contaminant levels in its water show no health threat and no connection to hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

Because of that, the agency said, it will stop delivering water to four households in the small northeastern Pennsylvania community that was featured in the anti-drilling documentary "Gasland."

"The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action," said Philadelphia-based EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin.

The action, however, does not change state officials' case against Cabot Oil and Gas for contaminating water wells in the community with methane. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection still has not cleared Cabot to drill in areas of Dimock Township where it ordered wells shut down in 2009. That case focused on poor well construction, not problems with fracturing.

A Cabot spokesman said the company is "working closely with the state to restart our operations."

EPA had looked for hazardous substances such as arsenic, barium or manganese (E&ENews PM, May 11). At five homes, EPA sampling found those substances, which are naturally occurring, at levels that "could present a health concern." But all five of the homes have sufficient treatment systems, or will have them, to make the water quality acceptable coming out of the tap.

"The data released today once again confirms the EPA's and DEP's findings that levels of contaminants found do not possess a threat to human health and the environment," a statement issued by the company said.

The statement said the company will "continue to cooperate with federal, state and local officials" and stressed the economic growth that drilling has brought to the area.

Industry praised EPA's findings as "fact-based" and cast them as vindication of the safety of drilling.

"We are very pleased that EPA has arrived upon these fact-based findings and that we're now able to close this chapter once and for all," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group.

What's not closed is the action by Pennsylvania DEP, which shut down Cabot's drilling in portions of Dimock Township in 2009. State officials said shoddy well construction on Cabot wells allowed methane gas to leak (or "migrate") into the water wells of Dimock residents.

EPA testing has left many with the impression that the federal agency has exonerated and debunked all the allegations against Cabot in Dimock, said John Hanger, who headed Pennsylvania DEP during its Dimock investigation.

He says a drive by some environmental groups to shut down the industry in Pennsylvania has backfired. He said they pushed too far by trying to prove that hydraulic fracturing chemicals, not just methane, had contaminated the Dimock water.

"This is the problem with hyperbole, exaggeration and wild claims," Hanger said. "There are real impacts from gas drilling, and we should focus on those, such as methane migration and methane leaks."

DEP testing found "thermogenic" -- as opposed to naturally occurring -- gas at 18 properties. DEP fined the company and eventually negotiated a $4.1 million settlement in which all the affected homeowners got at least two times the value of their home and kept any mineral rights.

EPA tested for methane in its first round of sampling. Five wells had methane above the federal Office of Surface Mining's screening level of 28 parts per million. Two of the homes were receiving alternate sources of drinking water from Cabot. EPA officials said all of the people affected were already aware that their water contained levels of methane.

"EPA's investigation does not include an evaluation of the risk posed by elevated levels of methane -- which continue to exist in some homes in Dimock -- and which, at extreme levels and if unaddressed, can lead to explosions," said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Kate Sinding.

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