EPA’s Dimock Distraction: Ignoring Pollution While Chasing “Tips”
EID takes a closer look at e-mails released by the EPA in association with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Scranton Times Tribune. The correspondence shows a federal agency arriving at one conclusion based on data, but taken down another road due to other factors.
A recent Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Scranton Times-Tribune yielded more than 3,000 emails from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relating to its actions regarding the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania. The correspondence provides alarming clarity on the impetus of those actions, as well as how the agency’s efforts evolved over time.
Perhaps most noteworthy is that EPA officials actively sought to become involved in Dimock well before their presence was even requested. According to an unsolicited email from Richard Fetzer, EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator and later the author of a 10-page letter building EPA’s case for involvement in Dimock, the EPA used news footage as an impetus to try to insert itself into the situation in Susquehanna County. The following email (p. 7) was sent from Fetzer to Charlene Moser, then-director of the Susquehanna County Emergency Management Agency:
Subject: Dimock Gas Well Issue
I have just been made aware of the issues related to gas well drilling in and around Dimock, PA. I saw the ABC news film clip. I thought I would reach out and ask if there were any needs you might have regarding this. I would be happy to discuss them either via email, phone or in person as you see fit.
Aside from Fetzer’s bypassing of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (the agency with regulatory jurisdiction), it would be plausible to think he was acting out of sincere concern for the residents of Dimock. But, a separate email sent to his colleagues just ten days later – which uses very pointed language in reference to natural gas producers operating in the area – raises suspicions about Fetzer’s motives. From the email (p. 9):
From: Richard Fetzer /R3/USEPA/US
Sent: 02/18/2010 12:17 PM
To: Stephen Jarvela
CC: Ann Breslin, Bob Guarni, burns.fran, Charlie Fitzsimmons,Christine Wagner, Deborah Lindsey, Dennis Matlock, Dominic Ventura, Eduardo Rovira, Eugene Dennis, Glen Lapsley, Greg Ham, gross.bonnie, heston.gerald, Jack Downie, Kevin Boyd, Laura Casillas, Marcos Aquino, Marjorie Easton, marzulli.linda, Myles Bartos, Raj Sharma, Richard Rupert, Robertj Kelly, Ruth Scharr, Stephen Jarvela, Susan Janowiak, Todd Richardson, Towle.Michael, Vincent Zenonebcc
Subject Re: Marcellus Shale
When this all began a few years back, I was invited to attend a county emergency responder briefing at the Lackawanna County EMA Building. The drillers put on a dog and pony show and stated that there are some issues that crop up, but they usually work that out with the residents and State. Recently, there is some recent interest in the Dimock, PA groundwater issue. I reached out to theSusquehanna County EMA director, Charlene Moser, to see if they had identified any needs from EPA. She does not have any need and feels that PADEP is handling the situation. (emphasis added)
Fetzer’s email shows two things. First, the person who, perhaps, had more influence over EPA getting involved in Dimock than anyone else, was pining to insert his agency into the situation long before anyone had even requested it. Second, as his comments about Ms. Moser attest, EPA’s presence was neither requested nor even necessary.
But in November 2011, when Cabot met the terms of its Consent Decree and DEP allowed the company to cease water deliveries, the EPA once again became interested in Dimock.
After reviewing the data collected by DEP and Cabot, EPA’s Chief of Groundwater and Enforcement at Region 3, Karen Johnson, asked an official at DEP (Scott Perry, then Acting Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management) if his agency would like to be present for EPA’s initial outreach to residents in the region. From this correspondence, it appears EPA agreed with Cabot and DEP that the water in Dimock did not pose a threat to human health. In fact, Johnson even sought to assuage Perry’s concerns that EPA’s involvement would inflame the situation. From the email (page 284):
From: KarenDJohnson/R3/USEPA/US 11/07/2011 07:43 AM
To: “Perry, Scott (DEP)”
Subject RE: Dimock visit
Believe me we aren’t going to do anything to do that…the guy from ATSDR hopefully can alley fears about health effects…I’ve been going through the data , even the “outside” analytical services agree with range of sampling already done just fine…can’t figure out what is going on..
I’ll let you know how it goes…
Karen D. Johnson, Chief
Ground Water & Enforcement Branch
That sentiment would later be solidified when EPA sent an email to Dimock residents on December 2, 2011 stating “the data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.”
But four days later, Gasland director Josh Fox sent an open letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling for her agency to intervene in Dimock because state regulators had allegedly “failed.”
Within two days of that letter, EPA staff in Washington, D.C. organized a conference call between Jackson and officials from Region 3 to discuss the agency’s ongoing efforts in Dimock. From the emails (page 496):
From: Ann Campbell /DC/USEPA/US
Sent: 12/08/2011 06:17 AM
To: Cynthia Dougherty, Ann Codrington, Fred Hauchman, Jeanne Briskin, Linda Boornazian, KarenD Johnson, Victoria Binetti, Carrie Wehling, Jon Capacasa
Subject: An Open Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to Intervene in Dimock, PA because the State of Pennsylvania has Failed
Folks – below is the letter from Josh Fox to the Administrator that was discussed during yesterday’s call. A briefing has been scheduled for Friday, Dec 16 to provide the Administrator with background on the situation in Dimock, any analysis or conclusions that have been drawn from the review of the state’s data, and options, if appropriate, for dealing with the situation. Bob will be setting up a prebrief to prep for the Administrator’s meeting early next week so I’d like to spend some time on this during the Tuesday workgroup call.
A few weeks later, EPA announced they would “perform water sampling at approximately 60 homes in the Carter Road/Meshoppen Creek Road area of Dimock, Pa.,” based on what the EPA termed potential “health concerns.”
In other words, the EPA – based on hard data that had also been reviewed by state regulators – agreed with Cabot and state regulators that Dimock’s water was safe. But for some reason the EPA abandoned their evidence-based conclusion, and it did so in a very short period of time.
We’ve seen such capriciousness from the EPA elsewhere as well, most notably in Pavillion, Wyoming, and Parker County in north Texas. In both of those cases, the EPA arrived at conclusions about water quality that were not supported by hard evidence and embarrassingly had to backtrack from its initial – and inflammatory – statements about the situation. Inserting itself into Dimock was neither requested nor necessary, as evidenced by the statements of local officials and the fact that EPA’s own testing ultimately validated what DEP had concluded the previous year – a conclusion that the EPA initially agreed with but then chose to abandon for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Did EPA act based upon a letter sent to Lisa Jackson from an anti-gas activist like Josh Fox, whose own claims about hydraulic fracturing and shale development have been widely and repeatedly debunked? Or did EPA simply decide to ignore its own analysis and inject itself into the situation, knowing full well that a public and very political firestorm would likely emerge? We’re not entirely sure.
What we do know from the experience in Dimock is that EPA overreach can and does result in actual pollution cases being overlooked – all so the agency can chase hypothetical cases of natural gas contamination already being aggressively investigated by state regulators.
Case in point: Lower Darby Creek. From the emails (page 645):
From: Cynthia Caporale/ESC/R3/USEPA/US 01/23/2012 08:21 AM
To: Fred Foreman
Subject Re: R33916; Lower Darby Creek Area;–Decline Response
With Dimock now coming in well over 100 samples we just can’t do both.
From: Fred Foreman/ESC/R3/USEPA/US
To: Cynthia Caporale/ESC/R3/USEPA/US@EPA
Sent: 01/23/2012 09:20 AM
Subject: Re: R33916; Lower Darby Creek Area;–Decline Response
What is going on with this?
Fred Foreman, Chief
Technical Services Branch
Office of Analytical Services & Quality Assurance
US EPA Region III
Ft. Meade, Maryland