Pennsylvania environmental regulators said Wednesday they have given permission to a natural-gas driller to stop delivering replacement water to residents whose drinking water wells were tainted with methane.
Residents expressed outrage and threatened to take the matter to court.
Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has been delivering water to homes in the northeast village of Dimock since January of 2009. The Houston-based energy company asked the Department of Environmental Protection for approval to stop the water deliveries by the end of November, saying Dimock's water is safe to drink.
DEP granted Cabot's request late Tuesday, notifying the company in a letter released Wednesday morning. Scott Perry, the agency's acting deputy secretary for oil and gas management, wrote that since Cabot has satisfied the terms of a December settlement agreement requiring the company to remove methane from the residents' water, DEP "therefore grants Cabot's request to discontinue providing temporary potable water."
Residents who are suing Cabot in federal court say their water is still tainted with unsafe levels of methane and possibly other contaminants from the drilling process. They say DEP had no right to allow Cabot to stop paying for replacement water.
Bill Ely, 60, said the water coming out of his well looks like milk.
"You put your hand down a couple of inches and you can't see your hand, that's how much gas there is in it. And they're telling me it was that way all my life," said Ely, who has lived in the family homestead for nearly 50 years and said his well water was crystal clear until Cabot's arrival three years ago.
If Cabot stops refilling his 550-gallon plastic "water buffalo" that supplies water for bathing and washing clothes, Ely said it will cost him $250 per week to maintain it and another $20,000 to $30,000 to install a permanent system to pipe water from an untainted spring on his land.
Ely and another resident, Victoria Switzer, said their attorneys had promised to seek an injunction in the event that DEP gave Cabot permission to halt deliveries. The attorneys did not immediately return an email and phone call seeking comment.
Regulators previously found that Cabot drilled faulty gas wells that allowed methane to escape into Dimock's aquifer. The company denied responsibility, but has been banned from drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock since April of 2010.
Along with its request to stop paying for deliveries of water, Cabot has asked the department for permission to resume drilling in Dimock, a rural community about 20 miles south of the New York state line where 18 residential water wells were found to be polluted with methane. DEP has yet to rule on that request.
Philip Stalnaker, a Cabot vice president, asserted in a Monday letter to DEP that tests show the residents' water to be safe to drink and use for cooking, bathing, washing dishes and doing laundry. He said any methane that remains in the water is naturally occurring but that Cabot is willing to install mitigation systems at residents' request.
Months' worth of sampling data provided by DEP to The Times-Tribune of Scranton show that methane has spiked repeatedly this year in the water wells of several homes, reaching potentially explosive levels in five, the newspaper reported Wednesday.
Cabot cited data from 2,000 water samples taken before the commencement of drilling in Susquehanna County that show that 80 percent of them already had methane.
"The amount of methane in a water supply is neither fixed nor predictable," and depends on a variety of factors unrelated to drilling, Cabot spokesman George Stark said in an email Wednesday.
Methane is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas commonly found in Pennsylvania groundwater. Sources include swamps, landfills, coal mines and gas wells. Methane is not known to be harmful to ingest, but at high concentrations it's flammable and can lead to asphyxiation.
The December 2010 agreement between DEP and Cabot required the company to offer residential treatment systems that remove methane from the residents' water, and to pay them twice the assessed tax value of their homes. A half-dozen treatment systems have been installed, and Cabot said they are effective at removing the gas.
But residents who filed a federal lawsuit against Cabot are appealing the December settlement. They favor an earlier, scuttled DEP plan that would have forced Cabot to pay nearly $12 million to connect their homes to a municipal water line.
Switzer said it's inappropriate for the state to allow Cabot to stop the water deliveries while the appeal is pending _ and while there still are problems with residents' water.
"They keep changing the rules to accommodate this gas company. It's so blatantly corrupt," she said.
DEP spokeswoman Katherine Gresh said the December settlement gave Cabot the right to halt the deliveries once the company funded escrow accounts for the homeowners and is "independent of the water quality results."
Cabot plans to inform each homeowner by Nov. 1 that it will discontinue deliveries of bulk and bottled water by Nov. 30. The company also offered to pay for a plumber to reconnect residents' water wells. Cabot said it will stop delivering replacement water "at its earliest opportunity" to homeowners who refuse to allow testing of their well water.