(Article by Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D. republished from ChildrensHealthDefense.org)
In a landmark decision announced Tuesday, Houston-based Coterra Energy (formerly Cabot Oil & Gas) pleaded no contest to a slate of criminal environmental charges. The deal culminated 14 years of frustration and uncertainty for hundreds of residents in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, a no-contest plea means the company has accepted criminal responsibility.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who announced the plea deal, filed the original charges against the drilling company in June 2020, after a grand jury investigation found the company’s gas wells were “faulty,” resulting in flammable methane leaking into aquifers in Dimock and the surrounding area.
In what The Associated Press described as “one of the most prominent pollution cases ever to emerge from the U.S. drilling and fracking boom,” prosecutors and local residents claimed that not only did the company’s fracking activities pollute the community’s groundwater, but that Coterra tried to evade responsibility.
Craig Stevens, a resident of the affected region and advocate for local residents, said Coterra faced 15 criminal charges, including nine felonies and six misdemeanors.
Despite the company’s claims that the gas in local groundwater was “naturally occurring,” the company faced — and ultimately pled no contest to — charges that included the illegal discharge of industrial wastes and unlawful conduct under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.
Commenting on the plea deal, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman and chief litigation counsel at Children’s Health Defense, told The Defender:
“I visited Dimock in 2010 and watched fires come from people’s faucets while the gas companies were denying everything. A dozen of the activists who hosted my visit have since died of cancer and other diseases that are plausibly related to contamination.
“I’m grateful for this victory and Attorney General Josh Shapiro for standing up to the fracking industry. This is the first time that an active driller has ever been held responsible for poisoning water and ruining people’s lives.”
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, applauded the deal, but also called on elected officials to do more.
“After more than a decade of glaring inaction from state and federal leaders, finally the people of Dimock have a measure of justice thanks to the work of Attorney General Shapiro,” Hauter said.
However, she added:
“Pennsylvania needs more action from Shapiro to rein in the oil and gas industry, and federal leaders must act to ensure that no American is subjected to continued poisoning, sickness and harm from drilling and fracking.”
Settlement better than a guilty verdict, attorney general says
The plea deal includes a plan to deliver “a clean, reliable supply of drinking water” to the affected area. The plan stems from tests that were ordered by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office for dozens of homes in the region.
Affected residents were briefed on the plan Nov. 21. Pennsylvania American Water will drill two wells — a “public groundwater system” — and a treatment plant that will remove contaminants from the water. The water will be piped to approximately 20 homes.
“Our office remains laser focused on using our limited tools to restore clean drinking water for the residents of Dimock,” said Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office.
“Yesterday, our attorneys along with Pennsylvania American Water updated the impacted residents on the status of the case and the extensive independent research done with one goal — how best to provide clean water to their homes,” Rhoads added.
Prosecutors and representatives for Shapiro said a settlement had “the potential to deliver more for victims than the penalties of a guilty verdict,” as “the penalty for a conviction under the state’s Clean Stream Laws is a maximum $50,000 fine for each violation.”
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Coterra spokesperson George Stark said, “Coterra remains committed to achieving an amicable resolution with the Office of the Attorney General. We continue to work towards a resolution that is productive and beneficial to the community and landowners.”
The grand jury in 2020 was critical of the company’s “long-term indifference to the damage it caused to the environment and citizens of Susquehanna County,” where many residents used bottled water, bulk water purchased commercially, or water “drawn from creeks and artesian wells” instead of their own well water.
Faucets on fire caught attention of international politicians, documentary filmmakers — but not local officials
Troubles for the residents of Dimock — about 150 miles north of Philadelphia — and the surrounding area began Sept. 11, 2008, according to Stevens.
“That’s when Cabot Oil & Gas was drilling, fracking vertical wells, and they had three private water wells go bad in a 24-hour period. That was 14 years ago,” said Stevens.
An exploding water well caught the public’s attention, as did reports by area residents of symptoms such as dizziness, rashes and vomiting, which they blamed on their well water.
Awareness of the events in Dimock soon spread beyond the boundaries of this rural area. The Emmy Award-winning documentary “Gasland,” released in 2010, showed residents of the region setting their tap water on fire.
Stevens, who moved from California to northeastern Pennsylvania where he had ancestral ties, was not directly affected by the water contamination but, as he told The Defender in an exclusive interview, he faced challenges when his property’s mineral rights were “stolen” and “they tried to force a pipeline across my property.”
“So I became the private property rights guy, because I was being abused,” said Stevens. “And I went down and met the people whose water had been contaminated and I teamed up with them.”
While the global community had become aware of the situation in Dimock, local and state officials appeared to be uninterested in the matter, according to Stevens.
“It got pushed off, covered up. No political help. And so we got ourselves to this point here after 14 years,” he said.
Stevens told The Defender:
“We’ve had zero help from our elected officials. Not one local county, state or federal elected official that represents us as citizen taxpayers has ever come to see, to meet with the people and try to find some kind of resolution because they think that everything is going great and there’s no problem.
“They let the fire smolder and keep burning and keep issuing permits to keep the fire burning. That’s how I would put it. There was no interest in getting to the bottom [of this].”
Even politicians from other states — and 24 countries — showed more interest in the region than local officials, Stevens said, adding:
“About 400 elected officials came from New York State. These are township supervisors, mayors, county commissioners. We’ve had at least 40 assembly members and about eight senators from New York State come between 2010 and 2015, when [fracking] was banned in December of 2014 … they used us as their touchstone to say, ‘hey, tell us how bad it is.’
“Even though we’ve had people from all over the United States come, elected officials from all over the world, the first thing they ask is what our local elected officials are doing, and we said ‘nothing’ … A member of Parliament all the way from South Africa came to see this. But our elected officials that live not too far away decided to blow us off.”
Local officials ignored the issue, despite Pennsylvania having some of the strictest language regarding environmental protection in any state constitution.
Stevens told The Defender:
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, if you want to look it up, has Article I, Section 27. It’s a constitutional right [inserted] in 1971. We have a right to clean air and clean water in the Commonwealth and the preservation of the natural environment for ‘generations yet to come’ … which is about its unborn children.
“It’s supposed to protect them and they’re doing nothing to protect us from any of this. It’s only one of only two [such constitutional clauses] in the United States. This is the strongest language of constitutional protection codified into the Constitution by law, and we’re not being protected.
“They’re violating the constitution of Pennsylvania every day they drill and cause any kind of problems with air or water quality or natural environment problems. And nobody cares because of their money.”
Coterra, and its predecessor, Cabot, “denied any wrongdoing” for 14 years, claiming “they didn’t harm the water,” said Stevens. Cabot tried to turn the tables on critics and activists by filing countersuits. “I’ve been dragged into deposition for this case, so have many others,” Stevens said.
Another local activist, Ray Kemble, “had a $5 million SLAPP lawsuit [strategic lawsuit against public participation] put against him” in 2018, Sevens said, “that’s still in effect, still in discovery … four-and-a-half years later.”
Largest-ever investigation of environmental crimes in Pennsylvania
Stevens told The Defender he called the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office “every week for seven-and-a-half years, from the time I moved here in 2010, until 2017.”
During that entire time, he got no response, until Shapiro — the current attorney general and governor-elect of Pennsylvania — entered office.
Describing himself as a “Tea Party Republican,” Stevens nevertheless credited Shapiro, a Democrat, with taking his concerns seriously — concerns which led to “the largest investigation of environmental crimes” in the state’s history.
“[Shapiro] offered Ray Kemble and myself to go to Harrisburg back on May 4, 2017, to present our case to the Environmental Crimes Division, which we did. They gave us three hours that turned into five.
“Those five hours turned into the largest investigation of environmental crimes in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And that turned into, I believe, six grand juries. We know of three or four already, but there might be another couple more. One of the grand jury presentations was about Cabot Oil & Gas harming and destroying the water of the people in Dimock.”
In the aftermath of that meeting, said Stevens, the names and addresses of more than 200 affected residents from two counties were provided to the attorney general’s office.
Following this, “They sent their team out for the next year-and-a-half and interviewed every one of them at their kitchen tables,” Stevens said.
Dimock’s water contaminated with methane, bacteria, radium
Pennsylvania American Water, the firm that will develop a new “public groundwater system” as part of the plea agreement reached with Coterra Energy, previously was involved in Pennsylvania’s abandoned efforts to connect Dimock residents to an existing municipal water system from a nearby town, approximately six miles away.
In that instance, state environmental regulators, who had said they would sue what was then Cabot Oil & Gas to recover the money, secured $12 million in financing. Under legal threats from local officials and Cabot, however, regulators abandoned the plan.
“They passed it,” Stevens said. “ The money was put in the bank, but Cabot and their minions and their supporters and a lot of the neighbors threatened to sue. So did Montrose [the nearby town], saying that we were stealing their water. So they fought it and they won.”
For a while though, water was delivered to affected residents, according to Stevens, who told The Defender:
“There was no pipeline built, so the water kept being delivered by [Cabot] by order of the Commonwealth … it cost $100 a day to deliver water to people, to their tanks.
“That’s $3,000 a month per house for something I pull out of my ground for a little bit of power for my jet pump to suck it out, to have it at my faucet, to take a shower.”
This changed, however, when a new governor took office in Pennsylvania in 2011, Republican Tom Corbett.
“When he was sworn in, he basically told the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] secretary that if you build it [the water pipeline], he would tear it out. He wasn’t kidding. They knew he wasn’t kidding.
“By Nov. 30, 2011, he had the water deliveries stopped, even though the groundwater was still bad. As governor, he ordered the DEP to stop delivering water or having Cabot deliver water.”
The solution later proposed by Cabot and state prosecutors was far different — and less expensive. Cabot agreed to pay residents $4.1 million to install individual water treatment systems in each affected home, as part of a settlement between the state and Cabot.
The settlement, however, was “struck without residents’ input or consent” and “infuriated those who had made it clear they did not trust Cabot with their water,” even though “many residents took the money — and the treatment systems.”
According to many residents who accepted this deal, the systems never worked properly, forcing them to go back to purchasing water or having it delivered to their homes as before. As a result, they rejected a December 2021 proposal by the attorney general’s office that the company pay for replacement treatment systems.
Highlighting the lack of functionality of the treatment systems, water tests showed high levels of methane, an explosive gas that can cause asphyxiation. Bacteria were found in the water in other homes, with an expert biochemist reporting that the natural gas created conditions where bacteria “could survive and proliferate.”
However, an investigation by The Associated Press uncovered documents from Scott Perry, Pennsylvania’s chief oil and gas regulator, instructing DEP staff to “ignore” the complaints.
“I know probably 100 people in this area that have a plastic water tank outside their house or in their basement, where they have to pull water out of a creek or a pond or go find it and haul it to their house … a hundred households, not just a handful in Dimock,” Stevens said.
“I think 40% of all people that live in Pennsylvania live on a private water well. That’s the second highest in the United States.
“I’m on private water. So is Ray [Kemble]. The problem is there’s no water. So if they knock your water out, there’s no local water to pipe to you because that costs millions of dollars, to bring a pipeline to you.”
In addition to methane and bacterial contamination, Stevens says that the gas — and therefore the groundwater — in the Dimock area is also radioactive. He said:
“Did you know that the gas here is highly radioactive? It’s full of radon, which is radium. And radium is a noble gas, which means if you burn it, like to cook on your stove, you’re breathing in radium. Nobody’s measuring it … The methane burns, but the radon comes right back out in the air and you’re breathing it.”
“You can’t sell a house in the United States if it has radon in it. By law, you have to have it mitigated or else you’re not selling the house.”
‘This stuff is poison,’ but federal environmental agencies took no action
In the midst of all of the above, federal agencies came to the region, but did not acknowledge that there was any problem or any dangerous threat to public health or local residents.
“We got the ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] involved,” Stevens said. “We got them to come in. Barack Obama’s EPA came in. They spent six months living in Dimock, and they tested 63 private water wells. And every month, they declared there was no problem … they kept saying ‘oh, the water is great.’
“And as you know, 2012 was a presidential re-election year for Obama, so nobody was going to touch this subject right or left with a ten-meter cattle prod. So we got Barack Obama to send the EPA and they tested the water.
“We knew it was bad. But they kept saying it was fine for six months straight, telling the whole world. It destroyed the credibility of the people there, because now you got the EPA coming in saying everything’s fine, there’s no problem.”
Stevens recollected a June 2012 presentation of the EPA’s findings to local residents, where “they presented to everybody that your water is fine, it’s safe to drink and utilize for all purposes.”
“Guess what they wouldn’t do?” stated Stevens. “They were offered the water. My idea, just offer them some of the bubbling, carbonated diarrhea that smelled like dead skunk. That’s what was coming out of the faucet of a bunch of people … on camera, the agents slid their chairs back away from the table that had the water glass there and said ‘no way are we drinking that.’”
According to Stevens, these same agents later told some local residents, off the record, not to “even bathe an animal in the water in your tub,” saying “this stuff is poison.”
Nevertheless, the results of this “investigation” in Dimock, as well as in Park County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyoming, led to the release of a June 2015 EPA report that found fracking had not impacted quality or safety of drinking water in the United States, and a subsequent NPR report that there was “no widespread drinking water pollution from fracking.”
As described by Stevens, “In June 2015, they came up with their top-line findings after a $24 million taxpayer money-funded investigation. Their finding was no drinking water had been impacted by fracking in the United States of America … no widespread or systemic harm to water has been found from the fracking, hydrofracking process.”
However, according to Stevens, at an Oct. 28, 2015, hearing where the final draft of the EPA study was presented to the EPA’s Environmental Hearing Board for peer review, the study was instead scrapped.
“Ray [Kemble] and I brought a team of eight other people,” said Stevens. “We testified at it. We found out last minute.” Residents of Park County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyoming, were flown in. “It took us two hours to convince 30 scientists. They voted 29-1 that day to make them scrap the entire $24 million study.”
According to Stevens, the board, consisting of “30 scientists from all over the country,” questioned the omission of “one piece of paper” from the EPA’s “three major national investigations” — referring to the communities in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.
“For those three locations, not one anything, not even a mention of the names of the communities” entered the report, said Stevens. “So that was the federal government taking care of us. When I say ‘taking care,’ it’s like the mob takes care of you. You disappear.”
Stevens attributed the omissions in the report to pressure from companies like Cabot.
“They did it through Environmental Protection Agency investigations, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry investigations, Department of Environmental Protection investigations,” he said. “We have been calling DEP ‘Don’t Expect Protection’ for the last 14 years.”
Cabot claimed that gas has “always” been “naturally occurring” in the region’s water, and that “demonstrations of lighting the stream from the tap on fire had been a practice for many years,” although environmentalists have said that any amount of naturally occurring methane in the water “has been exacerbated” by high-volume fracking.
Court ruling a ‘vindication’ — but the problem continues
Stevens noted the significance of yesterday’s court settlement, telling The Defender that Coterra is “the number two driller in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which is the number two gas-producing state in the United States.”
“We have the largest gas patch in the world here, called the Marcellus Shale,” he added. “It even beats Saudi Arabia and everybody else, so this is a huge play. Trillions of dollars available, if they could just figure out how to drill holes in the ground without contaminating water sources.”
According to AP, Coterra “remains banned from drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock because the state says it still has not sufficiently reduced the level of methane in the water” in those areas.
However, the same report states that “Coterra has drilled more than 130 new gas wells since the [Pennsylvania] attorney general filed charges on June 15, 2020 — more than any other driller in the state — and state inspectors have documented nearly 200 violations at Coterra wells over that time.”
Nevertheless, Stevens described the court-ordered settlement as “vindication.”
“We were called liars, puppets of Putin,” said Stevens. “Now we don’t work for Putin anymore, we work for the Chinese. Anybody that was raising questions on this process was being vilified by the industry, and they have a lot of money.”
Stevens expressed his hope that this issue, and the settlement that was reached, will serve as an example for other states and communities.
“Ray [Kemble] and I, and others, have been using Pennsylvania to show other states and communities why they might want to reconsider moving forward with this process.
“I think there’s, to date, 15 states that have banned or put moratoriums in place in the United States because of what’s happened in Pennsylvania.”
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