'Finally, some justice': Corporation ordered to pay Pennsylvania town millions
Photo by E. Vitka on Unsplash
Environmental justice advocates celebrated Tuesday when a fracking company accepted responsibility for poisoning drinking water supplies in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

"Dimock residents have known for 14 years that Cabot Oil & Gas is guilty of contaminating our water."

Nearly 14 years after a well explosion on New Year's Day 2009 revealed to Dimock residents that methane had percolated into their groundwater, Cabot Oil & Gas pleaded no contest to 15 criminal charges, including nine felonies. The notorious driller, now owned by Coterra Energy, was featured in the 2010 HBO documentary Gasland.

In addition to taking full responsibility for destroying the small rural town's drinking water supplies for the first time—following more than a decade of denial and alleged harassment of residents—the Houston-based company agreed to pay $16.3 million to build new public water infrastructure and to cover the costs of delivering clean water to those who have been harmed for the next 75 years.

The historic settlement stems from charges that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat and the commonwealth's governor-elect, filed in June 2020 based on recommendations issued at the conclusion of a two-year grand jury investigation into the fracking industry.

"Dimock residents have known for 14 years that Cabot Oil & Gas is guilty of contaminating our water," Dimock resident Ray Kemble said Tuesday in a statement. "Finally, some justice."

"This case proves once and for all that drilling and fracking contaminated our drinking water," said Kemble, one of many victims who traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014 to personally deliver samples to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Now we need immediate relief in the form of water deliveries."

Dimock residents were forced to go to the nation's capital due to regulatory inaction.

"There were failures at every level," Shapiro said after Tuesday's hearing. "The local elected officials where someone would normally go, ignored them. The regulators whose job it is to set the boundaries for industry to operate in, failed."

Food & Water Watch, a progressive advocacy group that has long supported anti-fracking struggles waged by the residents of Dimock and other communities, summarized those failures in a timeline.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, acknowledged in 2010 that Cabot's drilling activities had contaminated the drinking water of several Dimock households and ordered the company to stop fracking in part of the town. In August 2012, however, the agency allowed Cabot to resume fracking in the same area where it had previously been prohibited.

At the federal level, meanwhile, the EPA claimed in July 2012 that added filtration systems made the water in Dimock safe to drink and announced its plans to halt the testing it had begun earlier that year. The following summer, reporting showed that regional EPA staff wanted to continue their probe after tests found a link between fracking and methane contamination of drinking water.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ultimately confirmed the presence of harmful contaminants in Dimock's drinking water. In a 2016 report, the agency wrote that chemicals had been found in 44 private water wells "at levels high enough to affect health" or "pose a physical hazard." In addition, the agency warned that the presence of methane created "an immediate risk of explosion or fire" for five households.

Last summer, Physicians for Social Responsibility uncovered internal records revealing that since 2012, fossil fuel companies have injected potentially carcinogenic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or chemicals that can degrade into PFAS, into the ground while fracking for oil and gas—after the Obama administration approved their use despite EPA scientists' concerns about toxicity.

"Federal leaders must act to ensure that no American is subjected to continued poisoning, sickness, and harm from drilling and fracking."

"After more than a decade of glaring inaction from state and federal leaders, finally the people of Dimock have a measure of justice thanks to the work of Attorney General Shapiro," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said Tuesday.

However, she continued, "countless other communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will continue to suffer from the inherent health and safety risks of fracking until our country fully transitions to a clean, safe, renewable energy future."

"Pennsylvania needs more action from Shapiro to rein in the oil and gas industry," said Hauter, "and federal leaders must act to ensure that no American is subjected to continued poisoning, sickness, and harm from drilling and fracking."

Roughly 17.3 million people in the United States live within a half-mile radius of active oil and gas production, according to the Oil & Gas Threat Map, a geospatial analysis released in May.

A massive body of research has documented the deadly consequences of fracking and other forms of fossil fuel extraction, including planet-heating and illness-inducing air pollution as well as drinking water contamination, which creates another pathway of exposure to cancer-linked chemicals.

Peer-reviewed studies published earlier this year found that kids living in close proximity to fracking and other so-called "unconventional" drilling operations at birth are two to three times more likely to develop childhood leukemia and that elderly individuals who live near or downwind of fracking sites are at higher risk of early death.