Debate over proposed Dimock water line divides community

By Laura Legere (Staff Writer)
Published: October 25, 2010

DIMOCK TWP. – A wealth of gas beneath this small Susquehanna County community has brought it a new industry, a national reputation for bad luck and a host of polarizing issues: the risks and damage to water, soil and air; the fair rate for leased land; the condition of the roads and the shape of the economy.

But nothing has defined the division in Dimock Township like a line that exists, for now, only on paper: a proposed $11.8 million water main to bring fresh water to 18 families with methane linked to gas drilling in their wells – a pipe that will travel along Route 29, the thoroughfare that cuts the township in two.

For the group of citizens and businesses called Enough Already that formed this month to oppose the line, the project represents a big-government solution that penalizes many taxpayers for the benefit of a few and threatens to drive away the gas companies that have brought them money or jobs.

For the residents who need the line – those whose water has been contaminated with methane the state found seeping from faulty natural gas wells – the opposition is an attack on their health and safety that comes after they have waited two years for clean water.

“To have neighbor go against neighbor – our own neighbors are doing this,” said Norma Fiorentino, the retired nurse whose water well first drew the state’s attention to the methane problem when the concrete slab above it was blown apart in January 2009.

“This is a real stab in the back for us,” she said. “That was not our fault this happened.”

‘We’re fed up’

Enough Already’s two dozen core members met for the first time in early October, days after Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger announced a plan to use public financing to build the 12.5-mile waterline then sue to get the money back from Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., the company deemed responsible for the contamination.

The group declared its opposition to the line in an ad in the Mulligan’s Shopping Guide, a Susquehanna County advertising publication, on Oct. 13. It began posting fliers with the same logo – a blue pipe labeled “water line” crossed out in red – in businesses and on public bulletin boards along the proposed route from Montrose to Dimock.

Dan and Gretchen Backer posted the fliers in the windows at the Inn at Montrose, the hotel and restaurant they bought and expanded since 2008 to serve the gas workers.

Gretchen Backer summarized the group’s position: The state has “gone amok” by siding with families who are suing Cabot for contamination the driller says it did not cause and using the opportunity to demand a “handout” from a wealthy company in order to expand a public utility.

“There’s just enough flags that say this is ridiculous,” she said.

Before the lunch rush last Tuesday, she and Dan Backer sat at a table in the tavern they renovated entirely except for the original bar made from wood reclaimed from a bowling lane.

The couple touts the fact that they have benefited from the influx of industry, and they think not enough is said about the good influence of gas drilling.

“Enough Already is enough with the negativity,” Dan Backer said. He fears the combination of state enforcement actions against the gas industry and a public perception of Dimock as a “wasteland” will kill the new opportunities.

“If they left, we’re done. We fold,” he said. “We can’t survive serving steaks and cheeseburgers.”

At Lockhart’s – a combination tag and title business, gas station and diner about 2½ miles south on Route 29 – the Enough Already flier was posted last week on a cork board below another advertising a chicken-and-biscuit dinner.

Don Lockhart, the owner of the business for 26 years, sat on a stool at the lunch counter, where he keeps a petition asking the state infrastructure investment authority to deny financing for the project.

“They’re going to shove this water down everybody’s throats,” he said. The affected residents should have clean water, he said, but the state should consider the impact on people who are not involved with the problem and think of less-intrusive options, like building a reservoir closer to the affected homes.

“All you’re getting is the ‘wah, wah’ part of this,” he said. “You’re not getting any common sense. All you hear about is ‘these poor people.’ The people, we’re fed up.”

Residents without businesses also have signed on with the group, including at least three who have had replacement water provided by Cabot because they believe drilling has damaged the quality or quantity of water in their wells.

Martha Locey, a 78-year-old woman who lives on her family’s farm in Hop Bottom, gave $20 – the money she had in her purse during the group’s first meeting – to help pay for the Enough Already ad. Her farm’s two water wells have had methane in them since they were drilled in the 1940s and 1970s, she said, and signed an affidavit for Cabot testifying to that fact.

“I came out with the truth, because I know it has been in the water,” she said.

The company has used evidence of pre-existing methane to help prove its case that it did not cause the problems in the Dimock wells. It also paid Dr. Robert W. Watson, an emeritus professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Penn State University, about $25,000 to review its materials and well-completion records. Watson concluded that Cabot’s wells did not cause methane to seep into aquifers.

DEP counters Cabot’s evidence with a photographic record of methane bubbling out of the company’s gas wells, documentation of excessive well pressures, and isotopic analysis – a kind of chemical fingerprinting – that matches the gas in the affected water supplies with the gas coming from Cabot’s wells.

Hanger has explained that the waterline is the only remedy that will guarantee the families clean water – now and in the future – because there is no certainty that methane will stop migrating from Cabot’s wells.

He also dismissed the conclusions reached by Watson.

“No surprise that his report supports the company that is paying him,” he said in an e-mail.

‘Stirring up trouble’

The most visible battle in Dimock has been the one waged between DEP and Cabot in press releases, public announcements, letters and ads.

Hanger sees evidence of Cabot’s influence in the formation of Enough Already, an accusation the group and Cabot both deny.

“For Cabot to constantly stir up trouble is very disappointing,” Hanger said. “They are doing everything to deflect attention from their own failings and creating distractions from the real issue here, which is they drilled bad wells.”

The businesses hosting the Enough Already petition are either Cabot contractors or frequently do business with the company or its workers, he pointed out. One business, listed on the ad as Guy Parrish’s, is hired by Cabot to deliver replacement water to families affected by the stray methane.

Cabot spokesman George Stark said the driller “does business with many Susquehanna County companies, having invested nearly a billion dollars in the region. Cabot did not ask businesses to participate in any organization or group in Susquehanna County, or anywhere else for that matter.”

Harold Lewis, a resident who has worked delivering water to the affected homes, built a large handmade sign with the words “water pipe line” crossed out in black in his front yard just beyond a telephone pole wrapped with four No Trespassing signs.

The anti-waterline sign faces across the road toward two homes with tainted water.

“It’s nothing against the neighbors or anything like that,” he said in a hallway of Elk Lake High School after a meeting organized by Enough Already on Thursday night. “It’s against the pipeline.”

The Lewis family also had replacement water supplied by Cabot for several months after they noticed an odor in their well water. Lewis said he was just “nervous in the beginning,” but tests show the well water is fine.

“I know all the neighbors think I’m mad at them – I’m not,” he said. “They’re probably mad at me now.”

The meeting on Thursday was punctuated with shouts from members of the audience, many from outside the town or county, who wore blue ribbons in support of the affected families in Dimock.

As the meeting ended, those wearing blue ribbons looked warily across the auditorium as those without ribbons were being interviewed for television. On the other side of the room, audience members sympathetic to Enough Already mumbled on their way out the doors that the families’ complaints were “all about the money.” Others said the families were “pumping chemicals into their own wells.”

Lynn Senick, a Montrose resident and critic of the industry, stood outside and touched the ribbon on her lapel.

“I hate the divisiveness and the lies,” she said. “I hate that the DEP, their authority is being flouted and challenged. I don’t like to walk down the street and feel like I can’t talk to certain people, or that because I have this” – she pointed to her ribbon – “now I’m an enemy.”

Residents who will be served by the waterline also recognized the stakes are higher than hurt feelings.

“If we have regulations and laws but DEP won’t hold the gas companies responsible, we might as well have no DEP,” said Victoria Switzer, one of the affected residents, who paused in the hall after apologizing to the presenters for the heckling from the families’ out-of-town supporters.

“No laws, no regs, just gas,” she said. “Welcome to Dimock.”

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Copyright: The Citizens Voice