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EPA heightens scrutiny over Pa. gas drilling
EPA says public health is its key focus and insists it is guided by sound science and the law.
“We have been clear that if we see an immediate threat to public health, we will not hesitate to take steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk,” said Terri White, an EPA spokeswoman in Philadelphia.
The EPA investigations are being conducted amid reports of possibly drilling-related contamination in several Pennsylvania communities.
In recent years, methane migrating from drill sites into private water supplies has forced scores of residents to stop using their wells and rely on deliveries of fresh water. Some residents complain the state agency has failed to hold drillers to account.
In heavily drilled Washington County, near the West Virginia border, EPA staff are inspecting well pads and natural gas compressor stations for compliance with water- and air-quality laws. In Dimock, a village about 20 miles south of the New York state line, EPA stepped in after a gas driller won the state’s permission to halt fresh water deliveries to about a dozen residents whose wells were tainted with methane and, the residents say, heavy metals, organic compounds and drilling chemicals.
Dimock holds the distinction of being Pennsylvania’s top gas-producing town, yielding enough gas in six months to supply 400,000 U.S. homes for a year. Some residents contend their water wells were irreversibly contaminated after Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. drilled faulty gas wells that leaked methane into the aquifer 7/87/8— and spilled thousands of gallons of fracking fluids that residents suspect leached into the groundwater.
Cabot first acknowledged, then denied responsibility for the methane it now contends is naturally occurring. It also asserts that years of sampling data show the water is safe to drink.
The EPA looked at the same test results and arrived at a different conclusion.
The well water samples “led us to conclude that there were health concerns that required action,” White said. EPA said its tests showed alarming levels of manganese and cancer-causing arsenic and that Cabot’s own tests found minute concentrations of organic compounds and synthetic chemicals, suggesting the influence of gas drilling.
Cabot says its drilling operations had nothing to do with any chemicals that have turned up in the water. It points to a Duke University study last year that found no evidence of contamination from fracking.
Yet the company racks up state violations at a far higher rate than its competitors in the Marcellus — 248 violations at its wells in Dimock alone since late 2007 — most recently last month, when the company was flagged for improper storage, transport or disposal of residual waste. State regulators levied more than $1.1 million in fines and penalties against the company between 2008 and 2010. And it is still banned from drilling any new wells in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock.
While EPA agreed last month to deliver water to four homes along Carter Road, the agency said the tests did not justify supplying water to several other residents who had been getting their water from Cabot and who have filed suit against the company.
The plaintiffs still don’t trust their wells, instead relying on water from the nearby Montrose municipal supply.
Twice a day, six days a week, Carter Road resident Ray Kemble drives about eight miles to a hydrant in Montrose, fills a 550-gallon tank strapped to the back of a donated truck, and delivers water to as many as five homes — including his own. Anti-drilling groups are footing the bill, estimated at $500 per week.
Kemble said his well water turned brown and became unusable in 2008, shortly after the gas well across the street was drilled and fracked.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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