Appalachian Basin

Dimock Forever? Or, Dimock Forgotten?

The Scranton Times seems to be in love with Dimock, Pennsylvania, but a different Dimock than the one most of the community knows.  It’s “Dimock Forever” as the paper struggles to keep the myth perpetuated by a dozen litigants alive, all the while ignoring a forgotten community that knows differently. 

The people of Dimock, and certainly our friends at Cabot Oil & Gas, have got to feel very frustrated about now with the latest story in the Scranton Times suggesting the EPA investigation somehow wasn’t the final word but, rather, some new imagined chapter in a slay the dragons saga the paper’s been spinning.

They see the words and messages of a very few paraded constantly across the pages of all the major media, purporting to speak for, or at least represent, a mythical “Dimock” that has been industrialized, polluted and scarred for life.

They know the truth – it is precisely the opposite – yet no one asks for their opinion and when they offer it anyway, it is marginalized.  It doesn’t fit the storyline, after all.  The fact the overwhelming majority of Dimock residents are supportive of natural gas development just doesn’t make for big headlines, so they don’t get asked for quotes.  No one visits their homes to find out what the water was like 30 years ago.  No one asks them about how natural gas has affected their lives, or not affected their lives.  They are the “Dimock Forgotten.”

The Times has been covering the Dimock story for years now, but has accelerated production simultaneously with the revelations there never was much of a story at all.  It has produced nearly 40 stories featuring Dimock over the last year, including two on Sunday with the dubious “gotcha” titles of “Are leaking wells letting methane get into Dimock’s water?” and “Cabot beats EPA to punch on well’s water.”  This follows less than objective headlines such as the following:

“Dimock supporters to take water plea to EPA chief”
“Gas company lawyers challenged for representing Dimock family with tainted well”
“Dimock families make legal appeal to keep water”
“Cabot argues to resume drilling in Dimock as tests show surges of methane”
“High methane level recorded in Dimock water well”

These story lines have perpetuated a false notion the poor people of Dimock have been tread upon by some industrial warrior company that seeks to pollute their water, destroy their views and ruin their lives, when the reality is one of safe water and a contented community that turns out in the thousands every year to support Cabot Oil & Gas at its annual picnic.  The malcontents still get the headlines, though, as forgotten Dimock residents live lives vastly improved by natural gas development.

The Times did, to be fair, produce one story, on May 12 of this year, entitled “EPA releases last Dimock tests; no cause for more action” that ordinarily would have been the wind down of all the hype.  Nonetheless, it included six paragraphs in that 16 paragraph story raising questions regarding the outcome with the seeming purpose of keeping the story alive.  They included a quote from well-known anti-gas activist and chemistry professor Ron Bishop from the Town of Middlefield in Otsego County, New York suggesting:

“many of these homeowners’ water wells are significantly contaminated with a variety of pollutants in concentrations which are of concern to public health professionals.”

Bishop, of course, like all natural gas opponents, loves to cite evidence of contamination without explaining potential natural or other non-gas sources or what constitutes “significant” but the Times reached out  to this advocate for comment, of course, to offset the good news from EPA.  It has produced seven more stories since then, but the two most recent stories reveal an intense desire to create controversy where none exists.  Let’s take a look at one of them – “Are leaking wells letting methane get into Dimock’s water?”

Perhaps the place to begin is to answer the question about contaminants.  There is an answer and it’s found in the EPA’s July 25, 2012 news release announcing the completion of its testing.  Here are the relevant excerpts (emphasis added):

“Our goal was to provide the Dimock community with complete and reliable information about the presence of contaminants in their drinking water and to determine whether further action was warranted to protect public health,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action. Throughout EPA’s work in Dimock, the Agency has used the best available scientific data to provide clarity to Dimock residents and address their concerns about the safety of their drinking water.”

EPA visited Dimock, Pa. in late 2011, surveyed residents regarding their private wells and reviewed hundreds of pages of drinking water data supplied to the agency by Dimock residents, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Cabot. Because data for some homes showed elevated contaminant levels and several residents expressed concern about their drinking water, EPA determined that well sampling was necessary to gather additional data and evaluate whether residents had access to safe drinking water.

Overall during the sampling in Dimock, EPA found hazardous substances, specifically arsenic, barium or manganese, all of which are also naturally occurring substances, in well water at five homes at levels that could present a health concern. In all cases the residents have now or will have their own treatment systems that can reduce concentrations of those hazardous substances to acceptable levels at the tap. EPA has provided the residents with all of their sampling results and has no further plans to conduct additional drinking water sampling in Dimock.

It’s not hard to grasp what the EPA is saying, is it?  Naturally occurring contaminants were determined to be present in five water wells (out of 61 sampled) at levels that presented health concerns, but these householders also had access to treatment systems that can reduce concentrations to acceptable levels, regardless of the source or the likelihood these problems long preceded gas well development.

The Times, of course, is saying this doesn’t address methane issues and proceeds to draw upon a Duke University (yes, that Duke University) study to suggest it is a contaminant and is finding its way into water wells as a result of Cabot’s gas wells.  It cites the DEP methane standard (intended to address risks of gas explosions), but avoids noting there is no EPA drinking water standard for methane because it doesn’t present a drinking water threat.  It is only a problem when the methane accumulates in an enclosed space, a problem easily resolved with venting.

Methane leakage, therefore, is the last hope natural gas opponents have of perpetuating the Dimock myth.  The Times notes the EPA conducted isotopic tests on methane in 12 water wells and draws on Duke as follows (emphasis added):

But Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University who co-authored a 2011 study showing a correlation between gas drilling and methane in Northeast Pennsylvania water wells, said the “simplest explanation” – methane contamination from deep rocks – is the likeliest. The signatures of the methane and ethane gathered by the EPA show evidence of two kinds of contamination related to natural gas drilling, he said: gas that moves from middle rock formations through imperfections in the cement between steel casings in the wells and deeper gas that leaks out through poor casings.

In between three and five of the samples posted by the EPA “the methane in the water looks exactly like Marcellus methane” in Susquehanna County and ethane signatures appear to confirm that conclusion, he said.

I don’t think there’s a natural pathway for this,” he said and argued that the new results buttress Duke’s earlier findings.

“There are people who say there is nothing going on in Dimock and I think that’s wrong, based on the evidence.”

Is Duke a credible source?  Do suppositions such as “the simplest explanation is the likeliest,” “looks like” and “I don’t think there’s a natural pathway for this” mean anything?  Once again, to the Times‘ credit, it does quote Fred Baldassare, a former DEP official, as follows (emphasis added):

Fred Baldassare, the DEP’s former stray gas inspector – now in private practice – whose work helped build the state’s case that faulty Cabot wells caused methane contamination in Dimock water in 2009, said it would be “inappropriate” and “very shortsighted” to try to interpret the EPA’s isotope data without considering previous tests that were likely taken from some of the same wells.

Methane that looks like it originated deep underground might instead be residual gas from a shallower source that has changed over time because the source is no longer discharging methane into the groundwater system, he explained. A signature that has stayed the same, on the other hand, might point to a continuing discharge of methane into aquifers.

Baldassare is hardly a friend of Cabot Oil and Gas as he was the main investigator during the state’s initial investigations in Dimock.  Given his work provided the foundation for enforcement that halted Cabot’s operations for over three years, the fact he is not supporting the thesis put forward by Duke’s researchers speaks volumes.

Moreover, in 2011, Baldassare laid out the pitfalls that would befall those unfamiliar with the region or the maturation process for hydrocarbons in attempting to draw conclusions on the impacts of natural gas development on water wells in Susquehanna County.  Jackson and Duke have elevated Baldassare to prophet status.  This what Baldassare stated a year ago (emphasis added):

Thermogenic gases occur naturally in the shallow Catskill and Lock Haven formations. We’ve known this for some time. These formations serve as aquifer in some regions of NE PA. In addition, recent geochemistry for some of these shallow thermogenic gases reveal mixing, isotope reversals, and rollovers, and genetic similarities to deeper thermogenic gases (Marcellus, and deeper formations) that is still not well defined.

Others have also sharply criticized Duke’s bull in the china approach to science.  Geo-scientist John Conrad, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “because the researchers also found methane in areas where no drilling is occurring, it was insupportable to say the methane was in the water due to hydrofracking. ‘Based on the limited amount of data they have,that is a stretch.'”

John Conrad isn’t the only one questioning Jackson’s research.  Former DEP Secretary John Hanger (and also no friend of Cabot) refuted Duke’s study as did current DEP Secretary Mike Krancer earlier this year.  Additionally, two papers were submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences questioning the study’s findings.  One of those was from researchers at the Ivy League Institution Brown University, where researchers stated:

√   Their report [Duke] does not fully appreciate the geologic history of this region and misrepresents potential risks of modern drilling and completion techniques used to develop shale gas resources.

√   Knowledge of significant methane as a natural constituent of groundwater in this region long predates the recent development of shale gas resources.

√   In close proximity to natural gas wells, many water samples showed low concentrations of methane. This shows that elevated methane concentrations are not an inevitable effect of drilling.

√   The data presented simply do not support the interpretation put forth that shale-gas development is leading to methane migration from the Marcellus into shallow groundwater.

Then, there are the words of Duke University itself.  Even if one were to accept Jackson’s simplistic thesis that the “simplest explanation” is the likeliest explanation, his own previous work provides serious discrepancies in his line of reasoning.  Namely the first Duke study includes the following observations:

  • That not all water wells close to drilling operations had methane, suggesting that the methane leakage is not an inevitable side effect of drilling …” (NY Times/E&E News, May 9, 2011)
  • That methane is common in water wells in the region. From the paper itself: “Methane concentrations were detected generally in 51 of 60 drinking-water wells (85%) across the region, regardless of gas industry operations … “ (Osborn, et al., Duke Univ., May 9, 2011)
  • That thermogenic methane (not just biogenic) was present in all but one of the wells that were found to have some quantity of methane. Only in one of the non-active-area wells was purely biogenic methane detected; all the rest featured a mix of the two, or thermogenic alone.  (See page 3 of first Duke study.)

Meanwhile, multiple comprehensive studies have shown thermogenic and biogenic methane are both prevalent throughout the region.

A Susquehanna County (where Dimock is located) study conducted by independent experts retained by Cabot, in fact, utilized over 1,700 pre-development water samples and found methane present in 78 percent of the water wells in the area.  The same study also found the source for methane in the area isn’t the Marcellus Shale, as some – namely Duke – continue to suggest.  No, it’s the thermogenic gas-charged sandstone in the Catskill Formation – the primary source for water wells in the region.

This matches earlier statements.  Indeed, researchers found the isotopic signature of thermogenic gas in the area, including samples utilized in Duke University’s earlier study, suggest the signature of methane is consistent with methane found in the Catskill and Upper and Middle Devonian deposits.  Here’s what the study says:

The present study, however, shows that the isotopic signatures of the Duke Study’s thermogenic methane samples were more consistent with those of shallower Upper and Middle Devonian deposits overlying the Marcellus Shale. This finding indicates that the methane samples analyzed in the Duke study could have originated entirely from shallower sources above the Marcellus that are not related to hydraulic fracturing activities.

While some might be quick to dispute a study funded by Cabot, the conclusions are confirmed by DEP’s former lead investigator, Mr. Baldassare and others.  Such facts and data may not matter that much to Jackson and the researchers at Duke, however.  This much was implied earlier this year by Duke’s Bill Chamedeis (the “Green Grok“) on his blog where he stated:

As for those who claim that you just cannot document that drilling and fracking have contaminated people’s well water, I maintain that they’re either intentionally or unknowingly sticking their heads in the sand.  I have a hard time believing that all the water problems I heard about during my visit were either coincidence with nothing to do with drilling or were made up by people trying to make a fraudulent buck.  It’s pretty clear to me that at least sometimes — perhaps because of mistakes and/or carelessness — fracking leads to water contamination that can really set a family or a community back.

How’s that for science?

So, in the end, all we have supporting the Times‘ thesis are Duke’s study, based on seriously flawed data, and the baseless assertions and guesses of Bill Chameides and Robert Jackson that ignore the history of the region; compared to the pragmatic observations of local and national scientists and current and former DEP regulators, all of whom refute these assertions.

None of this should come as a surprise. Duke University has an axe to grind and face to save. Their first study was a flop and they are doing everything within their grasp to keep it from being widely recognized as such. It’s also worth mentioning the study they are seeking to defend was funded by the known anti-gas Park Foundation and the individual “William H Schlesinger, who selected the study’s outside reviewers … has supported moratoriums in New York on hydraulic fracturing permits until its effects are completely understood.” (Bloomberg News, May 10, 2011)

This takes us back to the point of beginning, wondering what it was all about.  The Times‘ story is little more than a rehash of what has long been known, with no data to change anything regarding the EPA conclusions.  There are few cases where so much has been said about so little.  We know Dimock has naturally occurring methane of both a biogenic and thermogenic type, arsenic, manganese and several other contaminants.  We know the community had these before natural gas development and if anyone at the Times would bother to ask they could learn that from long-time residents.  We know treatment systems are in place to address these issues regardless of source.  We know the EPA said it’s safe.

So, why are we still at this?  Why is no one talking to Dimock Forgotten?  Or, is it Dimock Forever?

Dimock, PA


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