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Cabot Oil and Gas Faces Lawsuit in Marcellus Drilling

The company, which had to pay $120,000 in pollution fines earlier this year, has denied charges that it's poisoning Pennsylvania's water.
 
 
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Of all the towns that have been subjected to drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania since the opening up of the Marcellus Shale, none have suffered more than Dimock. In just over a year several drinking water wells have been contaminated (one of which exploded on New Years Day, ripping through an 8 foot slab of concrete), numerous spills have dumped highly toxic wastewater, diesel fuel, and fracking fluid into local streams and rivers, and residents have been exposed to dangerously high levels of methane gas and heavy metals. The series of infractions on the part of Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston based energy company that has large holdings in Dimock, resulted in a $120,000 fine from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) earlier this month. But the cost to residents has been far greater.

On Friday of last week 15 families in Dimock announced that they were suing Cabot for poisoning their water and the likelihood that exposure to toxic chemicals has led to personal injury, including neurological and gastro-intestinal complications. Among the plaintiffs is a Cabot employee and Dimock resident who has knowledge of company practices and violations that have not yet been reported. According to Leslie Lewis, an attorney with one of the firms representing the families, the charges against Cabot are far reaching and reveal a profound degree of negligence and fraudulent conduct. "To me they just seem like a rogue operation," she says. "Anything goes."

Things were supposed to go differently in Dimock. Residents were promised handsome royalties and assured that their property and surrounding farmland -- their greatest asset -- would not be harmed. Today, if they wanted to leave, chances are they wouldn’t be able to sell their homes. "We've all had property damage," said Pat Farnelli, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We've all had major downward shifts in the quality of our lives. Probably most of us are starting to feel some health effects. You've got to worry about your kids, your grandkids that live here."

Farnelli, whose home is surrounded by gas wells, says that her children started to develop stomach problems late last summer. They would be fine at school but when they returned home at the end of the day and drank the water, the symptoms would reappear. Farnelli thought it was some kind of stomach virus and didn’t really suspect gas drilling until her neighbors told her that their water was contaminated. One day her neighbor showed her a glass of water that she says looked a bit cloudy and smelled like formaldehyde or some kind of chemical solvent. "It didn’t smell like water," she told me. 

In some cases it didn’t look like water either. Farnelli says that some residents had tap water that looked like unpasteurized apple cider with a kind of sludgy sediment on the bottom. It was a brownish orange color and had greasy bubbles on top. In 2008 Cabot drilled twenty wells in Dimock and has rapidly increased production since. They hope to drill sixty wells by the end of this year and between fifty and seventy in 2010. 

There are many ways to contaminate drinking water wells. According to a Consent Order issued by the DEP in early November, Cabot failed to properly cement well casings in several instances, which can allow methane and other toxic chemicals to leak or migrate into underground aquifers and nearby drinking water wells. When that gas gets trapped in the headspaces of wells, as it did in the case of Norma Fiornetino’s drinking water well on New Years Day, it can explode. Today many residents live in fear that the same might happen to them and that their land and water has been ruined.