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Long fight over fracking still divides Pa. town

DIMOCK, Pa. - More than three years after residents in this Susquehanna County town complained that Marcellus Shale natural gas development polluted their private water wells, the lawsuits are getting settled, the activists are going away, and gas drilling is set to resume.

Raymond D. Kemble in his front yard. Above, water from his well, which he claims is still polluted by drillers. (Michael Bryant/Staff)
Raymond D. Kemble in his front yard. Above, water from his well, which he claims is still polluted by drillers. (Michael Bryant/Staff)Read more

DIMOCK, Pa. - More than three years after residents in this Susquehanna County town complained that Marcellus Shale natural gas development polluted their private water wells, the lawsuits are getting settled, the activists are going away, and gas drilling is set to resume.

But the battle scars are unhealed in Dimock, whose name has become synonymous with hydraulic fracturing - fracking. The rush to drill struck a deep reservoir of hostility.

Residents who support or oppose shale-gas development complain that their neighbors are looking for a quick payday, either from gas-drilling royalties or a legal settlement. They exchange snippy comments at the post office and glares at the grocery. They hold counterdemonstrations to each other's rallies, hoisting glasses of dirty water or clean water, depending upon their point of view.

The pettiness was documented in court papers. One family who cooperated with the gas company to fix their water supply erected a tarp to block out their neighbors, who had sued the drillers and accused their neighbors of selling out. The family that sued posted signs around its modest ranch house: "For Sale: $5,000,000."

"It's really made some bitter enemies," said James C. Grimsley, 70, a retired New York City plumber who moved here nine years ago with his wife. He favors gas development, and expresses his sentiments on a sign nailed to his house on the main highway through Dimock: "Drill baby drill."

"You got neighbors against neighbors, towns against towns," said Raymond D. Kemble, a mechanic who is one of the residents who sued the Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. Kemble has festooned his yard with about three dozen anti-fracking signs, as well as a 40-foot billboard propped up against a mobile home.

Kemble, 57, has refused to sign a settlement with Cabot, although most of the litigants have recently come to terms with the gas driller. The settlement was reached after state and federal environmental regulators tested the water repeatedly and found no reason to intervene. The tests devastated the strength of the litigants' claims.

"I'm not saying I'm satisfied with the settlement," said Bill Ely, 61, who has signed a nondisclosure agreement and can't talk about details. "I'm not saying I'm dissatisfied. I'm just glad it's over."

Cabot declined to disclose the terms of the settlement, but Dan O. Dinges, the company's chief executive, told analysts last month that 32 of 36 litigants had signed off. "The aggregate value of the settlements are not a material item with respect to Cabot's financial statements," he said.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said that Cabot had complied with a consent order requiring it to fix the gas wells that were the source of methane, and was allowing Cabot to complete seven wells that were unfinished before the state suspended drilling in Dimock in 2010. All that remains is for the state to lift its ban on drilling new wells in Dimock.

Residents here who support gas drilling - and there are many - complain that the state's 28-month moratorium hurt them rather than Cabot, which simply moved its drill rigs into surrounding areas and continued exploration. Cabot's Susquehanna County wells are among the state's most prolific, and the company now produces about 700 million cubic feet of gas a day, enough to supply Philadelphia's entire annual demand in three months.

"We're basically missing out on royalties," said Ann Van Lenten, Jim Grimsley's wife. She formed a group called Dimock Proud to counter the image of their town as a wasteland.

The Dimock saga has caused numerous casualties - the residents whose well water was contaminated, and the town's image. Much of the anti-drilling movie Gasland is focused on Dimock and Pennsylvania, which filmmaker Josh Fox portrayed as unprepared for the scale of the Marcellus Shale boom.

"The reputation of the state has been badly damaged at some level by the media coverage, some of it irresponsible and some of it accurate," said John Hanger, the former DEP secretary who oversaw the regulatory response to Dimock. "The state has suffered, the gas industry has suffered."

The stage was set in 2008 when Cabot, which is based in Houston, began drilling exploratory wells on Susquehanna County land whose mineral rights it had quietly leased. Marcellus drilling then was confined mostly to Western Pennsylvania, but Cabot was betting on the 300-foot-thick formation buried a mile beneath Dimock.

Some residents near Cabot wells in Dimock began reporting dramatic changes in their water quality. On New Year's Day in 2009, methane that had built up beneath the concrete cover of a private water well blew up, ignited by the well's electric pump. The explosion got the attention of regulators and the media.

The DEP, which is responsible for regulating the industry, began an investigation. Cabot denied its drilling was responsible, insisting that methane migration was a naturally occurring phenomenon in northern Pennsylvania.

Anti-drilling activists blamed hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals deep into a well to shatter the shale and release natural gas. The DEP's investigators said no chemicals associated with fracking were found in the drinking water, but in the public's mind, "fracking" became the culprit.

The DEP's investigation eventually concluded that Cabot's poorly constructed wells were to blame. It said Cabot's contractors had failed to properly seal off the wells with concrete. Natural gas was able to migrate upward through voids outside the steel casing that lined the wells, providing a pathway for methane to leak into shallow aquifers and then into private water wells.

But the DEP's investigation took a long time to reach a conclusion, and Cabot's response to the residents seemed cold and indifferent. Some Dimock residents, who were angry they had signed leases for small sums before the scale of the Marcellus discovery was known, sued Cabot in November 2009, claiming their property and health were affected.

"One of the things I've learned in the shale wars, there are people and interests that profit from conflict," said Hanger. "There's certainly money to be made from fighting, whether it's lawyers, consultants, or fund-raising appeals. There's probably more to be made out of a good old fight than a peaceful resolution."

The DEP concluded that 18 water wells serving 19 households had been contaminated and ordered Cabot to fix its gas wells. When the repairs failed to eliminate the methane problem, it ordered Cabot to plug three wells in 2010.

"The evidence that we had marshaled at that point was in my view pretty overwhelming," said Hanger. Investigators could actually see natural gas bubbling to the surface around the wells.

The DEP's experience in Dimock prompted the state to rewrite its well-construction standards, and to enlarge the area that drillers are presumed liable for impairing water quality, from 1,000 feet to 2,500 feet from a gas well. Drillers now typically test water in private wells within a half-mile of their drill sites, to establish a baseline should problems arise.

Even after Cabot was forced to repair its wells, methane continued to be a problem with some Dimock residents.

The Rendell administration ordered Cabot to pay for a $12 million pipeline to bring fresh water to 19 households. Cabot objected, and so did some residents in Susquehanna County, who saw the project as excessive, and feared they would be left paying the cost.

"The pipeline made no sense," said Bill Aileo, a retired Army lawyer who organized a group called Enough Is Enough to protest the expensive pipeline project.

The incoming Corbett administration was certain to kill the pipeline project, so Hanger negotiated an alternative agreement with Cabot. The company would set aside $4.1 million to pay each of the 19 households two times the value of their homes and install a water-treatment system to remove methane from their water.

The families that weren't part of the lawsuit accepted Cabot's money, but only one of the 11 families in the lawsuit agreed to accept the offer of a water system.

"You sort of have to give them the opportunity to fix your water," said Ely, explaining why he was the only litigant to accept the system. "It's all about the water; it's not about the money."

Ely walked a visitor last week through the $30,000 system, which is contained in a shed outside his house. Though Cabot tests his system weekly, he still does not trust it. "Once your water is bad, it's hard to get back to drinking it," he said.

But extensive testing conducted by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the water posed no health risks. Though the tests showed the presence of some contaminants - arsenic, barium, sodium, manganese - none of the materials were linked to drilling. The high methane levels can be controlled by a treatment system.

Kemble, the mechanic with the yard signs who is one of the holdouts on the legal settlement, does not believe the water tests are accurate. Cabot had alleged that the contaminants in his water were more likely caused by his car-repair business, and the junked vehicles on his property.

Kemble is angry at just about everybody - Cabot, regulators, his own lawyers, and his ex-wife, who accepted the settlement, thereby reducing the amount offered to him. He said he would only see $79,000 from the deal, after legal fees.

"I won't shut up," said Kemble, who let visitors see he is packing a .25-caliber semiautomatic in his pants - fully licensed, he said.

"I still have the right to freedom of speech," he said, "and the right to bear arms."

Photographs capture the life of Dimock residents and gas-exploration businesses at