The Department of Environmental Protection is taking an appropriately tough stance against one of the biggest methane gas drillers in Pennsylvania.
DEP Secretary John Hanger has ordered an $11.8 million pipeline built to carry water to 18 rural homes in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County. Their well water is contaminated by natural gas, and the DEP wants Cabot Oil & Gas Co. to pay the bill.
That's roughly $650,000 per home for a permanent supply of clean drinking water in the community north of Scranton. The decision is a strong statement of the DEP's commitment to protect the public and safeguard the environment in the midst of a drilling boom in the state.
Residents complained in early 2009 of well-water contamination; Cabot was drilling within 1,000 feet of the homes. Under state law, the proximity alone is enough to presume that Cabot caused the pollution. But Hanger said subsequent testing proved the driller was responsible for methane leaking into the drinking wells.
Cabot signed consent agreements with the DEP requiring the driller to plug three wells believed to be the source of the leaking natural gas, and to provide residents with trucked-in water deliveries. Cabot says it has spent $8 million investigating and trying to fix the problem, although it denies causing the pollution and says the contamination was present prior to methane drilling.
The firm now says it signed the agreements under duress. Hanger's response: "We don't waterboard people."
Cabot CEO Dan Dinges said his company was willing to drill new water wells for residents, or to install water-treatment systems. But residents don't trust any groundwater nearby and have sued Cabot. Dinges accuses Hanger of waging an unfair campaign against the drilling firm.
Cabot is an extreme example of problems with Pennsylvania's new "gold rush." Drillers have essentially had their way in a state that has been trying to catch up with outdated regulations and beef up its staff to monitor drilling activities. To date, Pennsylvania is still the only major gas-producing state without a tax on production.
This showdown is also a reminder of what's at stake in the governor's race. Republican candidate Tom Corbett opposes a tax on gas production. Democrat Dan Onorato is calling for a severance tax, but says a proposal approved by the House last week is too high.
The shale-gas boom in Pennsylvania is in full swing, and Harrisburg is right to flex its regulatory muscle on behalf of the public and the environment.