EPA steps in to test Pa. town's tainted well water

Contamination blamed on drilling

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it will begin testing well water supplies at 60 homes in Dimock, Pa., the small Susquehanna County town where residents say Marcellus Shale gas drilling has contaminated their water.

In a move at odds with the state's environmental department, the EPA also said it will start delivering water today to four homes where the well water is undrinkable.

Craig Sautner, who with his wife and two children, lives in one of those four homes, said he is "ecstatic" about the EPA's decision to take a more active role in Dimock.

The community was featured in the 2010 documentary "Gasland" about the natural gas drilling boom in the United States.

On Nov. 30, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. stopped filling residents' 550-gallon water "buffalo" tanks after the state Department of Environmental Protection ruled the gas company had met its obligations under a 2010 consent agreement. The EPA began its own review of the well water problems in Dimock in mid-December and has taken weeks to decide what to do there or whether to do anything.

Dimock residents and environmental activists last week demonstrated outside a conference where EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was speaking in Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, imploring the agency to act.

EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin said health concerns due to the contamination prompted the EPA's decision to provide water to four families immediately while additional water testing is done.

"We believe that the information provided to us by the residents deserves further review," Mr. Garvin said, "and conducting our own sampling will help us fill information gaps." He said any future actions by the agency "will be based on the science and we will work to help get a more complete picture of water quality for these homes in Dimock."

The EPA said the sampling will begin in the next few days and take at least three weeks to complete. Results of the testing won't be available for another five weeks. The agency said it will reassess the decision to provide water to four of the residences based on the new sampling results.

Separate from the Dimock action, the EPA has, under the direction of Congress, started a national study of the impacts fracking may have on drinking water resources.

Katy Gresh, a spokeswoman for the state DEP, said it is reviewing data submitted by the EPA, but hasn't found anything new to justify the agency's water supply actions in Dimock. She said the DEP agrees that additional sampling should be conducted in Dimock and is working with the EPA to do that sampling.

Mr. Sautner, who has been getting water supplied by grass-roots environmental groups and neighbors since Cabot stopped delivering almost two months ago, said his well water and that of some of his neighbors contains unsafe concentrations of methane gas, heavy metals, arsenic and toxic chemicals.

"We waited to let the science and data speak for itself and now it did," said Mr. Sautner, who hasn't been able to use his well water for more than two years. "I don't understand how the EPA sees our water is contaminated while the DEP and Cabot do not. It must be pretty bad to have the EPA step in."

About a dozen residents have sued Cabot, claiming the water was contaminated by the gas well drilling that employed hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals more than a mile underground to crack the shale and release the gas.

Cabot has denied causing the contamination and contends that many water wells in the area contained methane before Marcellus Shale gas drilling began in the area, and that the well water in the area meets drinking water standards.

A statement released by George Stark, Cabot director of external affairs, said the company has sampled more than 2,000 wells in the area and "looks forward to helping educate the U.S. EPA on the ground water and geological features of Susquehanna County."

"Cabot believes that the U.S. EPA has a flawed interpretation of the data and has taken it out of context; this has resulted in an unwarranted investigation by U.S. EPA regarding water quality," Mr. Stark's statement said. "[The] PADEP has extensively investigated alleged groundwater concerns in the Dimock area and concluded, using sound science, that it was safe."

A state investigation had found that 18 water wells in Dimock were contaminated following the start of Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Susquehanna County in 2008, and the DEP cited and fined Cabot for faulty well construction that allowed methane to migrate into drinking water supplies.

Ms. Gresh said DEP's enforcement action against Cabot a year ago recognized the water contamination and established a fund for homeowners to have a water treatment system installed that could "provide water that meets and exceeds safe drinking water standards."

But Mr. Sautner said Cabot already tried that solution in 2008, installing a filtration system in his home that didn't work.

"In October 2009 DEP took it off line because it wasn't doing the job," he said. "We've been living off a water buffalo ever since and I want to tell you it's not a good way to live."

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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