Inside the 14-year battle to secure a water line for fracking’s ‘Ground Zero’ in Pa.

Long-suffering residents of Dimock, Pa, are feeling cautiously optimistic after Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro announces a plea deal with a natural gas company

By: - December 28, 2022 6:30 am

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By Audrey Carleton

Victoria Switzer could not have predicted that she would be standing beside Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro to celebrate a natural gas company’s acceptance of legal responsibility for environmental crimes in her neighborhood.

But that’s what she did on Nov. 29, just minutes after Coterra Energy Inc. pleaded no contest to criminal charges in the fracking-related water pollution crisis in her community going back more than a decade. The company moved in here more than a decade ago and its natural gas drilling was first tied to methane pollution in residents’ water wells in 2009; some still do not have easy access to potable water, residents and scientists tell Capital & Main.

As part of the plea bargain — which the attorney general’s office shared with Dimock residents a week prior to the hearing — the company will pay $16.29 million to drill a series of clean water wells and a water line connecting Dimock homes to this supply. The company will also give each affected household $58,000 to cover its water bills for the next 75 years and, during the estimated three- to four-year construction period, water treatment systems or bottled water while the households await the water line.

“I think it’s the best we could have asked for,” Switzer told Capital and Main on Nov. 30, the morning after the hearing. A 19-year resident of an area once considered “ground zero” in the fight against fracking, Switzer and her husband moved here in the early aughts and built their home from the ground up. She hasn’t ingested her well water since 2009. The outcome of the plea agreement is welcome news.

“A fine that wouldn’t have [been levied against] any of the residents for a proposed plan for a water line,” Switzer continued, “It’s a huge win.”

The November plea hearing lasted no more than 30 minutes in all — a swift resolution to a 14-year struggle for clean water and a two-and-a-half-year wait for residents who were promised justice by Shapiro in June 2020 when, as the state’s attorney general, he charged the company with nine felonies and six misdemeanors after methane escaped from its natural gas wells into nearby private water supplies.

“For too long, the good people of Dimock have waited to have the clean water that our constitution promises restored to them,” Shapiro said at a news conference following the hearing.

For many in Dimock, the result represents the long-awaited culmination of a plan drawn up more than a decade ago that, until days before Shapiro’s election, seemed out of reach. For years, residents felt twice-cursed: They lacked easy access to clean water since their water pipes were polluted due to fracking activity by Coterra, the fourth-largest gas-producing company in the state, which then resisted paying for a municipal water line when the plan was initially introduced, according to interviews and documents shared with Capital and Main.

And while a water line cannot undo the environmental damage caused by natural gas drilling, for some residents it would  eliminate the hassle of making lengthy treks every few days just to access clean water.

The saga began back in 2006, when Cabot land men arrived and knocked on the doors of Dimock residents to ask about signing leases to the mineral rights beneath their properties.

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In 2008 came the first signs that the natural gas boom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: Two Dimock residents notified regulators that their water wasn’t running clear. Then, on Jan. 1, 2009, another resident came home to find her water well had exploded, breaking through a concrete slab that sat over it.

The state ultimately determined that stray methane migration — in which gas travels through pathways underground, sometimes created by the bores that fracking wells create underground — was the cause of the explosion.

Neighbors began to learn that methane was in their own water supplies. And, all the while, they noted a sharp increase in truck traffic on otherwise quiet country roads, causing road conditions to worsen, bright lights and loud noises at late hours.

By the end of that year, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) stepped in, issuing a consent order. It required Cabot to repair groundwater quality and establish a 9-square-mile fracking moratorium around the region where families with polluted water wells lived — a perimeter that still exists today, 13 years later, since the baseline water quality in Dimock has yet to return to its pre-fracking conditions, DEP officials told Capital and Main.

Cabot pushed back, repeatedly denying that it caused the pollution, claiming instead that methane levels existed in the Marcellus Shale formation prior to its drilling in Dimock. The order was later amended three times within just over a year of its initial filing because Cabot had failed to restore polluted water supplies to their initial condition. In 2010, the DEP proposed a solution: An 11.8-mile water line that Coterra, then Cabot, resisted fervently, documents shared with Capital & Main show. The plan was dropped just months after it was introduced.

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“One of the ideas that was floated within that community was, ‘We want you to pipe in the municipal water. We don’t want to treat bad water into decent water. We want good water to begin with,’” said Zacariah Hildenbrand, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You’ve got contaminated water, it’s clear where it came from, you at the very least have a moral obligation to rectify the situation.”

Some residents were given treatment systems that repeatedly failed. And should the resuscitated water line plan fail per November’s plea agreement, Coterra will be required to implement them across Dimock households. Switzer says she will say no.

“These treatment systems are generally designed to handle mildly contaminated water,” Hidenbrand said. “One month of treatment and then the full system goes kaput, and then there’s no follow-up.”

Doing the math on how long she’ll have gone without clean water, Switzer nears two decades. In that time, she’s lost neighbors — some have died, others moved, neither camp able to see justice from the Nov. 29 hearing. Now, her community is looking at another three to four years, according to estimates by the attorney general’s office, before the water line is constructed.

“I can’t do anything about the time that we lost,” she said.

State regulators have issued Cabot and Coterra hundreds of violations since 2008, seven of which were issued near the 9-square-mile fracking moratorium zone in the week before the hearing. Some Dimock residents who live outside the moratorium area but still firmly in the center of a shale field will not receive clean water and could face an uphill battle should they ever need to secure it.

Shapiro, asked about this during the press conference after the hearing, deferred to state regulators. “Certainly it’s an issue that we will review upon taking office,” he said. Capital and Main reached out to the DEP for comment on the matter and did not hear back by publication time.

As for Switzer, she’s planning to move to be closer to family.

On this forested property, tucked behind a hill separating her home from the road, Switzer tends to a family of deer and at least one bear. She keeps an eye on Burdick Creek, which trickles through her backyard. If she moves, she will leave behind this seemingly idyllic plot; but she will also leave behind the roar of heavy-duty trucks and the “slow down” sign she felt obliged to put in front of her lot as a result. She will leave behind the water jugs she relies on. She will leave behind her neighbors, some of whom joined her in years of accidental activism that she never wished for.

“We have a goal, and it’s a positive goal,” Switzer said.“But it sure is a shame that we had to live the last decade like this.”

Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where an extended version of this story first appeared. Readers may email her at [email protected].

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