When U.S. EPA ended its investigation of drilling and drinking water contamination in Dimock, Pa., the agency said the water was safe to drink.
Now, another federal agency looking at the same data says it wasn't safe.
"Some chemicals, including methane, found in private water wells are of health and safety concern in the Dimock area," said Robert Helverson, an environmental health scientist at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
ATSDR issued a health consultation report Tuesday recommending that people in Dimock "take steps to reduce health risks" caused by the water in their wells.
The agency reviewed the data EPA collected from 64 homes in Dimock in 2012. But it didn't look at whether the problem chemicals resulted from oil and gas drilling, staying out of the fight about blame.
Still, the findings are likely to rekindle the politically charged debate over what contamination in Dimock's water says about the safety of shale drilling. That's especially true because Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the accused company, recently lost a $4.2 million verdict to two Dimock families. The company is challenging the verdict (EnergyWire, April 27).
Cabot responded to the new report by stressing its contention that the methane and other substances in the water are naturally occurring.
Company spokesman George Stark said the data "does not indicate that those contaminants detected have any relationship to oil and gas development in Dimock."
But state regulators stressed that they still are not allowing Cabot to drill in a 9-square-mile zone in the Dimock area.
"The impacts identified by the ATSDR report further underscore the need to ensure that the natural gas industry is properly regulated," said Neil Shader, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
EPA, whose actions in Dimock have been heavily scrutinized and criticized, referred questions to ATSDR, where officials said they couldn't provide answers yesterday. In a statement, EPA noted that it had the same information as ATSDR. But it didn't explain why the agencies offered such different messages to the people in Dimock.
To environmentalists, though, the message was clear.
"The report confirms what residents of Dimock have known for years -- their water is dirty and unsafe," said Dan Raichel of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Community Fracking Defense Project.
First mover in contamination
Dimock, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia, was at the forefront of a wave of drilling for shale gas that was powered by advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Regulators never blamed fracturing, or "fracking," itself for the contamination. Instead, the allegation was that poor well construction had caused contamination.
Drilling began in the area in 2008. In the months that followed, people living in the area began to complain about problems with their water. In a few cases, the gas blew up water wells.
The water problems led to Dimock taking a starring role in the anti-drilling documentary "Gasland" as the prime example of gas production gone bad.
State officials blamed Cabot, saying shoddy drilling practices contaminated 18 properties. DEP shut down Cabot wells in the area for more than two years, fined the company and eventually negotiated a $4.1 million settlement. The state also ordered Cabot to deliver water to affected residents for more than two years.
In October 2011, state regulators working for a new governor said Cabot could stop delivering water. The residents protested, and environmentalists pressured EPA to get involved. In early 2012, EPA agreed to investigate.
Ahead of its entry into Dimock, EPA asked ATSDR to do a preliminary screening of water quality data. ATSDR, a public health agency that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that people in Dimock not use their well water until the agency had done a more complete assessment.
The report released Tuesday was that more complete assessment.
But EPA ended its 2012 investigation in Dimock after a few months with a different, though carefully worded, message for people in Dimock.
EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said the agency's testing "did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action."
A broader search
EPA stuck to looking for contamination from drilling chemicals such as fracking fluid and dropped the idea of looking for the cause of high methane levels.
It was one of three cases that year in which EPA scaled back or retreated from investigations into pollution from drilling and came as the Obama administration was showing support for domestic natural gas development. The other two retreats were in Parker County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyo.
EPA acknowledged health concerns about some of the water wells but said they could be resolved with water treatment. And the headlines declared Dimock water "safe."
ATSDR's report this week would broadly seem to contradict that sentiment.
The report says drinking water at 13 of the homes may lead to an increased lifetime risk of cancer because of arsenic. It lists various degrees of concern about cadmium, lead and lithium, particularly for vulnerable populations such as young children. Five homes faced an immediate risk of fire or explosion from methane.
The different findings reflect two different aspects of such water controversies that often get confused amid the spin and fingerpointing. There's the question of whether the water is contaminated. Then there's the question of why it's contaminated.
EPA's investigation would have looked at who was to blame for any contamination. ATSDR did not.
"It's not their job to look at who caused whatever contamination there is," said Bryce Payne, a Pennsylvania environmental scientist who has studied aspects of the Dimock case. "It's their job to see if there are health implications. They did that and concluded there are health implications."
But the agency stressed that its findings have limitations. For starters, the report looks at 4-year-old data and not at the situation in Dimock right now.
To Payne, that's a problem.
"It's now four years later," Payne said. "Nobody is looking at this."