An article this week in the Scranton Times-Tribune describes alleged “reckless practices, unreported spills and buried problems” by Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation in Dimock Township, Pennsylvania -- a community that epitomizes the continuing controversies around Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.
Cabot employee Scott Ely tells the paper that he has observed five diesel fuel spills and efforts by the company to conceal them from inspectors. Plus he reports leaking containment pits, carelessly torn liners, bulldozers pushing contaminated soil over a bank, and well casing and control problems. Ely is quoted as saying that companies working on the drilling sites "had no care for what spilled anywhere. It was the most reckless industry I've ever seen in my life."
The article is chilling reading, and the allegations, if true (read the responses of the Cabot spokesman in the article), are damning of Cabot’s practices and those of their hired contractors.
Cabot insists that “none of the areas laid out in the accusations exceeded the cleanup standards or were outside the norms of protective health and safety." A report to the Department of Environmental Protection is due soon.
Whether outside the norms or just the norm for Cabot, the company’s enforcement record appears to be no better. The same Times-Tribune article reports that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued notices of violations at Cabot sites for at least 51 separate spill-related incidents between 2008 and 2010. And between June 2008 and May 2011, Cabot reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 19 spills and releases of hazardous substances or wastewater at its Susquehanna County well sites and 14 additional spills "where Cabot does not have sufficient information to confirm that a release of a hazardous substance ... occurred."
What is known is that improper drilling practices have contaminated 19 private water wells in Dimock. The community is torn over concerns about public health dangers and the jobs and income that drilling has brought to the community. Whether other long-term dangers to public health and the environment lurk in the ground and water supply of Dimock Township remains to be seen.
No form of energy extraction is environmentally benign. Accidents are inevitable, even with the best procedures in place. But shale gas exploration is a heavy industrial activity and needs to be regulated and monitored as such. Corner cutting, concealment, and failures of execution by drillers or the companies that they hire are inexcusable and cannot be tolerated. The industry must step up and perform. Ely himself is quoted as saying that "I know they can do this in a safe manner" and that he has seen improvements in company practices. That improvement must be continuous.
How many more Dimocks will there be as Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom goes on? That is up to government, the industry, and the citizens of Pennsylvania.
UPDATE 12/5/2011: Per the discussion in the comments section below, on Friday the the Associated Press reported that an EPA official says the water sampling data reviewed by the agency is limited, and EPA is not giving Dimock a clean bill of health.