It began with an explosion on New Year’s Day 2009. Soon, residents of the tiny rural community of Dimock discovered dangerous levels of methane gas had seeped into their private water wells.
Almost 14 years later, after setting off a series of events that would make the village synonymous with anti-fracking campaigns worldwide, Cabot Oil and Gas pleaded no contest to 15 criminal charges, including nine felonies. It marks the first time Cabot took responsibility for destroying drinking water supplies.
Listen to an interview with Susan Phillips about the story:
The company agreed to pay $16.29 million to Pennsylvania American Water to build a public water system that will provide clean water to the impacted people, along with a pledge the company will cover water bills for 75 years. In the meantime, the funds will pay for individual filtration systems and bottled water.
Ray Kemble of Dimock, who continues to haul water to his house in large containers, said it’s vindication for the people who suffered from lack of water and Cabot’s denials of responsibility.
“For every person that has been affected by gas drilling, oil drilling, around the world, everybody is going to be looking at them now,” Kemble said. “They’re not going to be able to sit there and do what they did here for 14 years. Deny, deny, deny, deny. [Saying we] are liars. They’re going to be held accountable.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro spoke after the hearing Tuesday at Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas in Montrose, saying 14 years was too long for residents to wait for clean water.
“There were failures at every level,” he said. “The local elected officials where someone would normally go, ignored them. The regulators whose job it is to set the boundaries for industry to operate in, failed.”
Shapiro charged Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas in June 2020 after recommendations from a grand jury found that the company “failed to acknowledge and correct conduct that polluted Pennsylvania water through stray gas migration.”
The company’s plea stems from violations of the state’s Clean Streams law, as well as illegal industrial discharges. The grand jury report also said the company’s “long-term indifference” to the damage it caused warrants penalties that rise beyond technical violations. Read the charging document here.
Shapiro and residents also pointed the finger at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Victoria Switzer of Dimock reminded those present of those who chose to move out, those who passed away, and that the DEP had promised a water line back in 2012.
“It’s the people’s lawyer who got it done,” said Spitzer, a retired school teacher. “Our own elected officials, DEP, EPA failed us miserably.”
DEP could not be reached for comment by Tuesday evening.
“Denied, denied, denied, denied”
The company, which is now Coterra, released a statement saying it has “worked closely with the Office of Attorney General to resolve historical matters.”
“As our operations today showcase, Coterra strives to follow best practices, exceed industry standards, and to continue to be a valuable community partner,” wrote spokesman George Stark in an email. “We are committed to being a responsible steward of the Commonwealth’s natural resources and will continue to work closely with our landowners and community leaders.”
Cabot had consistently denied responsibility for the damage despite findings by several state and federal agencies to the contrary.
“They’re all going to have to sit there and eat crow because every one of them has been lying about us for a decade,” Kemble said. “Saying this is fake, it’s false and everything else. Well after today, me and the rest of my neighbors of Dimock, we’re vindicated. Showing we’ve been telling the truth all these years.”
As much as Kemble says it’s a good day, he says he still has to haul water for several years before construction is complete. And, he would have liked to see someone do jail time.
“The higher ups of these companies, they should be going to jail,” Kemble said. “Every damn one of them should be going to jail. Because they knew exactly what was going on here. They knew the water pollution was happening. They knew people were dying, they knew it was toxic, and they just sat there and denied, denied, denied, denied.”
The company itself, not Cabot leaders or employees, was charged. On Tuesday, Shapiro said even had they taken the company to trial and won, the maximum penalty would have been about $600,000, which he called “pocket change for such a company.”
“I know people are frustrated because no CEO is led away in handcuffs,” he said.
He called for a change in the law to have environmental polluters face stricter penalties. Legal experts say it’s very difficult and rare to hold individuals accountable for environmental crimes.
Amidst promises of riches, water ruined
Cabot came to Dimock Township, population roughly 1,200, around 2008 at the start of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and amid the U.S. economic recession. It paid landowners per acre for the right to drill, with the promise of royalties on the natural gas that came out of the ground. And some residents did experience economic benefits without damage to their drinking water. But the battles with Cabot over lack of potable water for some ended up dividing a once tight-knit community.
In his comments after the court hearing, Shapiro cited Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, which guarantees clean air and water to all residents, and had a warning for other companies.
“We will not allow communities like this to be taken advantage of, or forgotten,” he said. “Your constitutional rights matter here in Pennsylvania.”
Shapiro won election as governor in November and will take office in January.
Although issues with gas drilling and water contamination began surfacing soon after drilling began in 2008 in Dimock, it wasn’t until the release of the 2010 HBO documentary Gasland that the town was thrust into the spotlight.
What happened in Dimock
Methane is a colorless and odorless gas and, in the right concentration, can lead to explosions in an enclosed space.
Natural gas production in deep formations like the Marcellus Shale requires drilling miles below the surface, and includes angling the wellbore from vertical to horizontal to reach previously unreachable gas deposits. The “fracking” aspect of production includes shooting water and chemicals at high pressure into the wellbore to pry open tiny cracks and release the gas. Poor well construction has been blamed for leaks of Marcellus Shale gas into the porous subsurface geology of Pennsylvania.
In the case of Dimock, investigations revealed poor well construction.
Levels of methane were so high in some instances that residents could light their tap water on fire. They complained of headaches and rashes after they showered. They described their water looking like Alka Seltzer, or muddy.
Lesson #1: Do your homework
Environmental attorney Rich Raiders, who is also a petroleum engineer who at one time represented residents of Dimock, as well as those impacted by natural gas pipeline construction, said industry workers from Texas and Oklahoma came to Pennsylvania without any knowledge of the state’s unique geology and didn’t bother to find out.
“If there’s a lesson here to the operators,” Raiders said, “it’s that you haven’t done enough homework. You haven’t done it on the drilling side or the pipeline side. The industry’s best practices were far from adequate.”
Raiders said the sad part about Dimock is the length of time residents had to put up with a lack of water.
“Geology in Pennsylvania is swiss cheese that’s been out too long and has cracks all through it,” he said. “What happens is a lot of this industry is run by finance people who want their money back. They didn’t take the time to slow down and make sure they were doing it right.”
Cabot’s actions led to multiple consent decrees, federal lawsuits, intervention by the EPA and the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control. It spurred division within the community over the company’s role. It also drew protests and support from celebrities like Yoko Ono and Mark Ruffalo.
Although the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than 130 violations and found that Cabot’s well construction was at fault, the company had continued to deny responsibility, including after the charges were filed.
The company claimed the methane had already existed in residential water wells despite findings that gas was leaking from drilling into the well water.
Shapiro said the company deliberately did not test for methane in residential water wells prior to drilling.
“Cabot’s failure to test its pre-drill water samples for methane eliminated the ability to establish a baseline for promptly assessing and addressing the problem of stray gas migration,” Shapiro said when announcing the charges in 2020. “In essence, they didn’t test their samples so that there would be no proof that they were contaminating nearby water supplies.”
Northeast Pennsylvania is known for methane deposits that are close to the surface and can bubble up into waterways.
But tests done on the contaminated water wells in Dimock clearly show the contamination is from methane that migrated deep within the earth’s surface. Analysis done by DEP, EPA as well as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control show evidence that Cabot’s drilling contaminated Dimock’s well water.
Lawsuits, settlements, filters but no clean water
Fifteen families filed a federal lawsuit against the company in 2009, but the settlements did not address the lack of a permanent water supply. And while the majority of the families settled out of court and signed gag orders forbidding them from speaking ill of Cabot, in 2016 a federal jury found Cabot negligent for polluting two families’ water wells and awarded them a total of $4.24 million.
A year later, U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania vacated the award, saying it bore little or no relationship to the evidence presented at trial.
The families then settled with Cabot.
In 2010, a consent decree with the company forced them to provide water filters and banned the company from drilling in a nine-square-mile area of Dimock. The ban remains in place.
Cabot’s drilling continued to pollute water supplies in the area, however, and a 2018 letter to the company from DEP details how it failed to comply with its orders to remediate problem wells.
Shapiro said several residents testified about water contamination to the grand jury.
“Flames came flying out of the jug, he testified,” Shapiro said when announcing the charges in 2020. “The resident then turned on the kitchen faucet and found that he was able to set that water on fire as well.”
When the person contacted Cabot, he was told to flee in case his house exploded.
Shapiro said the entire ordeal won’t be over until people “can put a glass up to their taps and drink it.”
Ray Kemble said he’s tired of hauling water, and looks forward to the day that will end.
“I’ve always said there’s two sets of laws in this state. One for industry, no law for us,” he said. “Well, today the law is for all of us. The world is going to know what happened here and I’m more proud of that than anything else.”
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.