Dimock Revisited: Historic Water Issues in Northeastern Pennsylvania
As the trial continues this week on the alleged contamination case in Dimock, Pennsylvania, one key point has been mentioned numerous times: the plaintiffs first complained about water issues in their well prior to any Marcellus Shale development in the area. Energy In Depth mentioned this briefly in the first post looking back on what’s occurred in Dimock over last decade in the fracking debate. It’s worth discussing this in more detail, however, given that both the plaintiffs and the defense have conceded that contamination happened several months before development occurred.
Methane is a historic issue in Pennsylvania’s water wells.
Dimock is located in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania in what’s considered the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania.
This region of Pennsylvania has a long history of naturally occurring methane in the water — not only prior to the first Marcellus Shale, but before the first oil well, the Drake Well, was drilled in the United States in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. In fact, the first recorded instances of lighting water on fire in the county took place a short drive up the road at Salt Springs State Park in Franklin Township in 1795. As the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) reports:
“Numerous attempts were made by different entrepreneurs to develop the spring for commercial gain between 1795 and 1870. The brine obtained produced a high quality salt, but not enough could be coaxed out of the ground to yield a profit. The water was noted to be more sulphureous than salty. Bubbles would rise to the surface and when touched with fire would flash like black powder…When methane gas continued to seep up through the plug, a simple container was built at the top of the well to gather the escaping gas, which was then piped into the Wheaton home where it was used for cooking and lighting. These pipes still run through the house.” (emphasis added)
One group in the region frustrated with activists’ claims about the nearby community of Franklin Forks even had shirts made to shed light on this historical truth.
A pamphlet issued by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Internal Affairs in 1937—with a 2nd print edition released in 1957—also described the noticeable methane in the area.
The pamphlet says,
“Bubbles of inflammable gas rise to the surface and can be ignited with a match, and a gas well about 200 feet from the spring supplies a farm house with gas for cooking. It seems probable that the gas is methane (CH4), as this gas is known to come from gas wells in the Chemung formation in several of the counties in the north-central part of Pennsylvania. Near the center of Middleton Township a test hole for oil was drilled to a depth of 680 feet. No oil was obtained, but gas and salt water were found in the Chemung formation at a depth of 300 feet.”
And there’s also this gem from 1921, when natural gas was discovered less than 200 feet deep in the area:
Brian Oram, professional geologist and soil scientist, who has made it his life’s work to understand the water quality issues facing Pennsylvanians, has given several presentations to residents in the region on the historic water quality issues they could be facing. He also explains in his presentation in 2012 (at about 4 minutes) how the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted the water tests in Dimock, which he was invited to observe. Right around the 15 minute marker, Oram says,
“I was lucky enough to light my first well in 1989.”
That’s decades before the first Marcellus development came to the area. His roughly 20 minute presentation is well-worth the time to watch.
Studies in recent years confirm methane issues in the region.
The most recent study of water quality in Pennsylvania was released last year after researchers analyzed baseline samples from over 21,000 water wells and concluded:
“…exceedance of at least one water-quality standard occurs in 63% of water well samples in NE Pennsylvania and 87% in the Western area.”
But that’s not the only study showing the existing issues. In 2013 a study published in the peer-reviewed journal for the National Groundwater Association looked at over 1700 wells in Susquehanna County and found:
- “Historical documentation suggests that the presence of methane gas in the shallow subsurface has been observed for over 200 years in Susquehanna County…”
- “There are several dozen instances of flammable effervescing springs and water wells dating back to the late 1700’s…”
- “Water well drillers have frequently reported encountering gas during drilling, particularly in valleys and other low-lying areas…”
It went on to explain,
“The results of the extensive ‘predrill’ water well sampling and background survey show methane to be nearly ubiquitous in water wells in this region, with over 78% of the water wells exhibiting detectable methane concentrations.” (p. 3, emphasis added)
Also in 2013, the USGS conducted a study of Sullivan County, and found:
“…high levels of naturally occurring methane in two of 20 randomly selected private water wells. Five other wells also contained some levels of methane, but the source of the gas was not determined. The water wells are in northeast Pennsylvania’s Sullivan County, not near any currently producing natural gas wells.” (emphasis added)
People love to talk about lighting water on fire.
In addition to the well-documented history of methane occurrences in Susquehanna County’s water and a number of studies, there are plenty of people who have shared their experiences with lighting water on fire in the Montrose area where Dimock and Franklin Forks are located. It’s worth sharing some of those stories again.
In 2012, the founders of the group Dimock Proud, wrote a guest post for EID on what had occurred in Dimock and included a story they learned while going door to door with a petition about one of the litigants at the time that used to light a nearby creek on fire more than 50 years ago:
“Methane is a natural occurrence. Methane has been present in the water of Susquehanna County for hundreds of years. We have many lifelong residents who are willing, and able, to attest to that. As a matter of fact, one of those lifelong residents actually grew up with one of the 11 litigants. He tells of the childhood escapades he and his litigant friend shared in. The two of them would go into the woods (as young children) to hide out and smoke. They would go down by the creek and light the creek water on fire. Mind you, this was over 50 years ago. Why doesn’t the litigant remember this? Who in the world would have thought to put a cigarette lighter next to their water faucet and light their water? In my opinion, only one who had prior knowledge that it was even possible.” (emphasis added)
Allen Coy, a local business owner, fire fighter, and Franklin Township resident told EID about a flaming toilet long before there was natural gas development in the area in the following video:
And one can’t forget Truthland where Shelly DePue discussed lighting the water on fire with a fellow Susquehanna County resident (1:41):
Or when she lit the water at Salt Springs State Park on fire in this video (1:49):
Methane has existed in water wells in Susquehanna County long before any gas drilling came to the area. If the plaintiffs’ wells had issues prior to Cabot drilling wells nearby, as everyone has conceded is the case, it very likely could have been naturally occurring methane that was always present or migrated as a result of some other activity on the property or nearby. One way to prevent this would be to properly install a water well, something EID will discuss in more detail in our next installment.