Media Attention Fades, but Their Well Water Is Still Foul

Associated Press looks at the legal aftermath of fracking in Dimock, Pennsylvania
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 19, 2022 3:25 PM CST
Key Question in Foul Water Case: 'You Going to Drink' It?
Ray Kemble talks about his water issues in his home in Dimock, Pa.   (AP Photo/Mike Rubinkam)

Meeting with a man whose well water has been polluted for years, officials in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office asked him whether he’d consider accepting a treatment system from the gas driller charged with fouling his aquifer. Not a chance, Ray Kemble of Dimock told them. "Are you going to drink and bathe in it?" Kemble asked the prosecutor and her colleague, a special agent, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by the AP. "Are you two going to come here and live in this house on that system for a month and use that water?" The officials demurred. One of the best-known pollution cases ever to emerge from the US drilling and fracking boom has entered a difficult new phase as prosecutors pursue criminal charges against the state’s most prolific gas driller, Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas .

Prosecutors are pushing for a settlement they say could yield more significant benefits for homeowners than a conviction, where the maximum penalty would be a $50,000 fine for each violation. But the option has put them at odds with some residents who reject individual water treatment systems as inadequate and unworkable. Others accepted the treatment systems and a monetary award equal to twice the tax value of each resident’s home. But many say the systems were prone to breaking down and required costly upkeep. The system Cabot installed at Tim and Deb Maye’s house now sits, disused, in a shed outside their home. Handwritten logs show hundreds of visits by contractors over the years as the elaborate setup of tanks, filters, and control panels broke down, leaked, and failed to remove bacteria.

It was an exploding water well that first aroused public attention in the previously anonymous patchwork of homes and farms about 150 miles north of Philadelphia in 2009. Around that time, residents began reporting their well water was making them sick with symptoms including vomiting, dizziness, and rashes. Anti-drilling celebrities and documentary filmmakers descended, holding Dimock up as an example of natural gas industry malfeasance in the nation’s No. 2 gas-producing state. Industry backers, meanwhile, touted the economic benefits of cheap gas and accused green groups of greatly exaggerating the threat, even as state regulators concluded that Cabot had fouled Dimock’s groundwater.

The hoopla eventually died down, but Dimock’s water remained polluted. Fresh contamination cases have been reported as recently as December. The state’s criminal case against the driller dates to 2020, when Attorney General Josh Shapiro—a Democrat now running for governor—charged Cabot with violating the law by allowing methane from the company’s faulty gas wells to escape into drinking-water aquifers in Dimock and nearby communities. A company spokesperson declined to comment, citing the "active legal matter." The company has long defended its record and denied responsibility for the contamination of Dimock’s groundwater. (Click to read the full story.)

(Read more fracking stories.)

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