Appalachian Basin

EPA’s Comedy of Errors in Dimock

If it weren’t so darned serious and there wasn’t so much at stake, one could make a hilarious slapstick movie about what’s happening in Dimock as the U.S. EPA pursues what appears to be a trial lawyer support initiative.  We’d obviously have Leslie Nielsen play Shawn Garvin, the Region III Administrator, except the poor fellow died a while back.  Perhaps George Gaynes, the guy who played Commandant Eric Lassard in Police Academy is still available.

Unfortunately, it’s no laughing matter.  The real Dimock story is one that should enrage every American because it’s a story of bureaucratic arrogance, incompetence and ideological pursuit from an agency that is supposed to represent all of us.  If you are a fan of natural gas development, you should be enraged at the way EPA is crafting an anti-natural gas storyline based on manipulated  data.  If you’re against natural gas development, you should be enraged at the way your supporters are being employed by trial lawyers as unknowing rainmakers – you’re being taken for fools.  When you read the facts, you simply won’t believe it!

There’s No Arsenic or Lace in Marcellus Shale Development

What am I talking about?  Well, those of you who have been following this case will recall that after  EPA first suggested Dimock water was safe to use, it then announced it would conduct further water tests because additional review of Cabot and DEP data showed, among other things, arsenic in one well at a level that posed a potential concern.  Here is what the EPA said:

Arsenic (37 ug/L) was observed at a concentration that would pose a long-term cancer risk of  8E-04. This represents an imminent and substantial threat. Additionally, the detected  concentration of arsenic exceeds its MCL (10 ug/L). Note that two toddlers reside at this location.

Sounds horrific, right?  Well, get this. That sample wasn’t even well water, as one would logically assume from the statement.  It was a sample of water brought in from the Borough of Montrose to supply the homeowner before DEP wisely told Cabot it no longer had to deliver water .  Moreover, there was no excessive arsenic, as it turns out upon further review of the data.  Yes, you read that correctly – the actual well water samples taken at this residence, and the other three residences, all indicate arsenic levels below the EPA standard for drinking water!

So, what we have here is U.S. EPA saying it needs to conduct testing at 61 private water wells at a cost of over $200,000 to the U.S. taxpayer based on a faulty Arsenic reading for trucked-in water, rather than well water.  Why wasn’t the reading correct?  Well, barium and arsenic readings got transposed when the data was recorded, but the bottom line is that it was not well water!  Let me repeat that – it was not well water .  And, the EPA has built it’s case for intervention on the false premise that it was well water when it was not.  The EPA has set in course an expensive testing program and is delivering water based on a sample of trucked-in water.  It’s premise for taking Superfund action was largely one based upon the presence of arsenic that doesn’t exist at the levels suggested.  So, what the heck is the EPA doing in Dimock?

Salt of the Earth or Water Softener?

The thought that it’s this easy to trigger action by a Federal agency ought to send shivers up the spine of anyone who is doing anything with their property.  That being said, the arsenic oversight only scratches the surface.  EPA also identified sodium as a reason to stretch its regulatory authority under the Superfund law to usurp PA DEP’s regulatory authority and insert itself into the Dimock litigation.  Now, bear in mind, Dimock is not a Superfund site and there is no EPA standard for sodium (or salt as it is more commonly known).  Yet, EPA said the following for water supplies it labelled as Residence 3 and Residence 4 (the latter being the home of Craig and Julie Sautner):

Residence 3: Sodium (110,000 ug/L) exceeded its Secondary MCL (20,000 ug/L). Sensitive individuals, such as those with hypertension or renal deficits, should be aware of this sodium source and minimize dietary intake, as necessary.

Residence 4: Similar to above (Resident 3), sodium was observed at this residence (82,900 ug/L) in excess of its Secondary MCL (20,000 ug/L).

You might wonder why I’m saying there is no EPA standard when EPA is talking about Secondary Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL’s). That is a good question. Well, this is where the brazen nature of EPA’s actions comes sharply into focus, the standard they’re talking about  is not an adopted safe drinking water standard but a proposed one not yet even approved by the agency!

Moreover, note the standard EPA references is secondary, meaning that it is established for aesthetic and guidance purposes and is not enforceable, even if it were to be in place, which it is not. It is, to be fair, on the EPA Contaminant Candidate List, but sodium is not regulated. There are, in fact, ongoing discussions about raising the threshold even as a matter of guidance.  According to EPA itself:

sodium posed a unique challenge for the Agency priority setting and contaminant candidate listing process. On one hand, high levels of salt intake may be associated with hypertension in some individuals. On the other hand, sodium levels in drinking water are usually low and unlikely to be a significant contribution to adverse health effects.

EPA faced a dilemma on whether or not to list sodium. A decision not to list would be justified by the fact that much is known about sodium, and it does not appear to be a drinking water risk comparable to other priority contaminants. In fact, this was the logic supporting the decision not to include sodium on the previous drinking water priority list in 1991

Are we to suppose this is a basis for a Superfund action?  How does  the EPA expect anyone but the most fervent and gullible anti-natural gas development interests to take this act seriously?  It’s so out of whack I’m beginning to think we should get a younger Steve Martin to play Garvin.


Sautner Well Sodium Levels


But, this still isn’t the worst of this situation!  It turns out the sample for the Sautner residence which showed sodium contamination was taken after the water had undergone water treatment, including water softening.  And, what is used to soften water?  You guessed it – sodium!  This raised the sodium level post-treatment by factors of 3-4 times.  Yet, the EPA raised sodium as an issue, indicating DEP Secretary Krancer had it right when he suggested EPA didn’t understand the data it was reviewing.  Had they actually connected with PA DEP before barging into Dimock, after initially declaring the water safe, they may have realized these small but very important details.  But they didn’t, and in that ignorance they donned their green helmets, marched onto the field, and scored a touchdown for the opposition.

When Will the EPA Get Real?

Still worse, the same Montrose public water supply  to which litigants say Cabot should have connected them via a water line, and from which they are currently receiving, through EPA deliveries, water yields  a reported sodium concentration of 51,000 ug/L.  This is more than twice the amount EPA is using to justify that litigants private well water is a “potential concern.”  So, we have a standard that’s not a standard being applied to justify Superfund authority, and federal government financing, to truck in water that has twice the amount of sodium to replace water that meets the non-standard before water softening!  Get that?  What in the world is going on here?   How is it that EPA is testing Dimock and not all of Montrose, or all of Pennsylvania, for that matter, if these are the rules?  What accounts for this strange behavior?

Interestingly, the EPA seems to have no interest in addressing real water problems.  It identifies not a single instance where any of the private water wells in question produce water exceeding EPA’s primary safe drinking water standards.  Instead, it relies upon secondary standards having to do with the color, taste or other aesthetic characteristics of water but do not indicate human health concerns.

EPA thought it had identified one such case with Residence 6, when it initially and erroneously read test results to conclude this well water had a concentration of DEHP that was roughly four times the primary safe drinking water standard, but EPA had to retract this finding when it discovered the test result was for a well several miles away from Dimock and had nothing to do with natural gas development. If you thought EPA rushed in to supply water to that homeowner, however, you thought wrong.  It has ignored that homeowner, giving away the game, which appears to be aiding the Dimock litigants and their trial lawyers.  Those residents of Montrose with higher sodium levels than the Dimock litigants, aren’t getting water and neither is that homeowner several miles away with the elevated DEHP levels.  Needless to say, no one else is getting help despite arsenic, manganese and sodium being higher throughout the area than the levels the EPA says are a potential concern in Dimock.  Perhaps Dimock is getting attention because it’s good theater for creating a tainted jury pool.  Under EPA management, though, that theater is turned into a comedy – a comedy of errors.

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