DIMOCK, Pa. - When Norma Fiorentino's relatives used to visit her house, they often filled a few jugs of clean country water from her well before returning to town.
"We had the best water here," said Fiorentino, 67.
That was before Marcellus Shale gas drilling came to Dimock. At first, Fiorentino said her water got a little cloudy. Then her well blew up on New Year's Day. The blast shattered the well's heavy concrete cover and scattered it on her front yard.
"We don't drink the water anymore," she said.
The explosion was the most dramatic incident since Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., of Houston, started drilling last year in this rural township 30 miles northwest of Scranton. The state Department of Environmental Protection has cited the company for several spills of fuel and drilling fluids. Last month, Cabot agreed to pay a $120,000 fine, to
improve its practices, and to provide water for 13 households, including Fiorentino's.
But Cabot's agreement has done little to mollify the suspicions of some residents in this corner of Susquehanna County, a patchwork of pastureland and rolling woodlands. More than 30 people representing 17 properties filed suit against Cabot last month.
"They've planted the seeds of mistrust here," said Victoria Switzer, one of the plaintiffs. "I can't sit amid all these wells and not be worried."
Dimock has become a focal point for environmentalists concerned by the juggernaut of drilling aimed at the vast reserves of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, now accessible because of improved drilling techniques. The activists cite Dimock as Exhibit 1 in a campaign to portray drilling as perilous.
"This is the most salient environmental issue in Pennsylvania by far," said Brady Russell of the advocacy group Clean Water Action.
Not everyone in Dimock is angry. The largest landowners, who stand to make millions of dollars from gas royalties, did not join the lawsuit. Other residents are eager for Cabot to expand drilling beyond the nine square miles of Dimock and Springville Townships where it is active.
"We have an enormous opportunity, and we have to be careful how we approach it, but if we do it correctly, in the end I think the area will benefit dramatically," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Carney. The 10th District Democrat lives on a small lot in Dimock, a quarter mile from a towering drill rig that operates around the clock.
"The gas business has been good to us," said Lori Davis, 42, who bought the Elk Lake Filling Station two years ago with a $20,000 down payment she and her husband got from a gas lease on their farm. They are now selling fuel and food to armies of Gulf Coast rig workers.
Many residents in Susquehanna County sense that something momentous is happening in Pennsylvania's rural north country, though not all of it is good.
"I just feel like they're coming in and grabbing what they can and getting out," said Martha Wells, a veterinarian whose family owns 41 acres about two miles from the active drilling area. Wells, who grew up in Delaware County, said she had rejected lease offers from gas drillers because she was unhappy with the disruption to the quiet rural life that attracted her here.
MaryAnn Warren, a county commissioner, said she was "very disappointed" about Cabot's environmental mishaps. "I have very mixed feelings about what's happening here," she said.
Local officials fear they are losing control to out-of-state contractors and Harrisburg regulators unfamiliar with the remote area, one of the state's poorest.
In March, DEP stripped all county officials of responsibility for enforcing state soil and erosion regulations on well sites and pipelines to keep enforcement uniform across the state. Jim Garner, manager of the county conservation district, says he no longer has any say about gas-drilling activity. "I'm just a spectator," he said.
And Warren, the county commissioner, said little economic benefit had trickled down to local government, whose property-tax revenue is largely unaffected by the gas boom.
Yet money is flowing into the county.
Cabot's chief executive officer, Dan O. Dinges, told investors in October that initial Marcellus production, which is concentrated in Susquehanna County, is "exceptional." A few dozen wells are producing 50 million cubic feet a day. That would translate into gross royalties of about $850,000 a month for county property owners.
And this is still early in a gas play that is expected to go on for decades. Dinges said Cabot expected "significant" growth in the number of wells completed by the end of 2009. Cabot plans to drill 83 new Marcellus wells next year, about double the current rate.
Cabot's hurried pace has created some concerns.
When the first wells were flared - the initial production is burned off to clear impurities - Cabot had neglected to notify local fire companies, Warren said. The county's emergency call center had not been told about the well locations, so when frantic residents called 911 to report dramatic flames pouring from wells, dispatchers had trouble directing firefighters.
"We were very uninformed about what was going to happen," Warren said.
Kenneth S. Komoroski, Cabot's spokesman, said Dimock residents had been "understandably upset" about some incidents and "weren't fully prepared" for some gas-drilling practices because the industry is new to Susquehanna County. Cabot has stepped up community-relations efforts, he said.
Some residents suspect Cabot's haste also contributed to some of the spills, as well as the most serious issue, the migration of methane into freshwater supplies, like Fiorentino's well.
Though some activists have blamed the gas leaks on hydraulic fracturing - the practice of injecting massive amounts of water and chemicals into a hole to shatter the shale and stimulate gas production - "fracking" is not implicated in the Dimock gas migration, DEP says.
Rather, DEP says Cabot appears to have improperly sealed off the aquifer during the early stages of drilling at at least three Dimock wells. In a proper well construction, drillers install steel casing into a bore hole after penetrating the water table and then inject cement between the steel pipe and the rock wall to protect the water.
But regulators suspect some voids remain in the space that should have been filled with cement, providing a pathway for gas to migrate into the water supply. DEP and Cabot say they know the gas is migrating from a shallow rock formation, because it is not the same isotope as Marcellus gas.
DEP says that because the combustible gas appeared in the water supply within six months of drilling, Cabot is presumed responsible. But Komoroski denies Cabot or its contractors failed to install the well properly. He said that Cabot was still investigating the problem.
"We'll do whatever it takes to assure DEP of the integrity of those wells," he said.
The consent order says that Cabot may have to plug the wells if it cannot correct deficiencies by March 31. "We don't envision any scenario where we will have to abandon those wells," Komoroski said.
Switzer, 57, a retired teacher who signed a lease in 2006, now regrets it.
"They just did a bad job," she said. "They were sloppy and didn't take care of our environment. I've turned sour on natural gas."
To watch a video about the Marcellus Shale drilling process, go to http://go.philly.com/marcellus3EndText