AP: Lawyers demand water for tainted Pa. town

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM | November 4, 2011 | 1:50 PM EDT

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — A law firm has demanded that Pennsylvania environmental regulators reverse their decision to allow a natural-gas driller to stop delivering replacement water to residents of a town whose drinking water wells were tainted with methane and possibly hazardous chemicals.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has been delivering water to homes in the northeastern Pennsylvania village of Dimock since January 2009. The Houston-based energy company asserts Dimock's water is safe to drink and won regulatory permission last month to stop the water deliveries by the end of November.

Attorneys for 11 Dimock residents who are suing Cabot in federal court said that test results show their well water is still contaminated. The law firm sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday, accusing regulators of colluding with the gas company and demanding they order Cabot to continue paying for bulk and bottled water. The Associated Press obtained the letter Friday.

"PADEP's arbitrary decision will deprive these deserving people and future generations, of their constitutional right to pure, clean, potable water," wrote Tate Kunkle of the New York City law firm of Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik & Associates.

Regulators previously found that Cabot drilled faulty gas wells that allowed methane to escape into Dimock's aquifer. The company denied responsibility, but has been banned from drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock since April 2010.

Along with its request to stop paying for water deliveries, Cabot has asked the department for permission to resume drilling in Dimock, a rural community about 20 miles south of the New York state line where 18 residential water wells were found to be polluted with methane. The state agency has yet to rule on that request.

"By coddling the oil and gas company, PADEP has made clear where its priorities lie," Kunkle wrote. He said the state has concluded that Cabot's profits "are more important than the constitutional right to pure water of the Commonwealth's residents."

DEP and Cabot representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A December 2010 agreement between the agency and Cabot required the company to offer residential treatment systems that remove methane from the residents' water, and to pay them twice the assessed tax value of their homes. A half-dozen treatment systems have been installed, and Cabot said they are effective at removing the gas. The agreement does not make the company liable for any chemicals or metals that have turned up in the residents' water, nor does it require the company to treat the water for anything other than methane.

Residents who are suing Cabot have appealed the settlement. They favor an earlier, scuttled DEP plan that would have forced Cabot to pay nearly $12 million to connect their homes to a municipal water line.

"Cabot and its representatives behave as if they are doing these undeserving people a favor with offers of a whole-house treatment system and nominal monetary payments," Kunkle wrote to the agency. "Cabot has not provided a 'permanent solution' to the problem they created and the only losers here are the residents of the Dimock/Carter Road Area and the community."

Kunkle said the Cabot treatment systems are ineffective and that his clients should not be forced to choose between "treated water" and paying $100 per day for delivery of potable water.

He said that tests have detected elevated levels of aluminum, iron, manganese and toluene in some of his clients' wells. The first three can affect the taste, smell and color of water but do not generally pose a health hazard. Toluene is a chemical found in drilling fluids, but Cabot has said it does not use it.

Several other worrisome substances were found at lower levels, the attorney said, including two chemicals associated with natural gas drilling: Bis (2-Ethylhexyl) adipate and Bis (2-Ehylhexyl) phthalate.

Dimock's aquifer is also still laced with methane, he wrote.

Methane is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas commonly found in Pennsylvania groundwater. Sources include swamps, landfills, coal mines and gas wells. Methane is not known to be harmful to ingest, but at high concentrations it's flammable and can lead to asphyxiation.

Cabot has said many of the substances detected in the residents' water are naturally occurring. Kunkle said that is misleading because those substances were safely ensconced thousands of feet below Dimock's aquifer before they were brought to the surface by Cabot's drilling activities.

It's not clear whether the attorneys will take formal legal action if DEP refuses to reverse its decision. Kunkle declined Friday to comment on the letter, which was sent to Scott Perry, chief of DEP's oil and gas program.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Shawn Garvin, chief of EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, also received copies.