I live in Broome County in New York’s Southern Tier. My town is on the border with Pennsylvania. During the early years of the fracking boom – technically, horizontal hydraulic fracturing with long laterals or shale gas drilling – I was involved with efforts to keep fracking out of New York and to support our PA neighbors who were being devastated by it. My main role was providing factual comments on articles in the media and reading research and articles to make sure I was accurate and up-to-date.
I also attended rallies, panels, and press events, with a bit of bird-dogging on the side. (Bird-dogging is the practice of showing up in places where a public official is speaking or visiting with signs for your cause in order to increase your visibility with the official and, if you’re lucky, the press. It is not illegal or disruptive.) Through these events, I heard from the people of Dimock, PA, which is about thirty miles south of my home, and their allies about the horrible environmental impacts and suffering that fracking was causing there.
Cabot Oil & Gas was the company that was drilling there at the time. In 2008, they contaminated the water supply but refused to take responsibility for the damage. The elected officials and Department of Environmental Protection did not intervene as they should have. Cabot did settle with some people whose homes were affected but with gag clauses that prevented them from saying anything about the situation, although the fact that some houses were torn down and that the lots were restricted from new construction spoke volumes. Meanwhile, other neighbors continued to live in houses without usable water, their properties basically unsaleable. Cabot was eventually restricted from further drilling in a nine square mile section of Dimock, but the damage had already been done.
Finally, on November 29, 2022, Coterra Energy, which includes what had been Cabot, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of the PA Clean Streams Law, even though they had originally been charged on fifteen counts, including nine felonies. They are ordered to pay $16 million for a water system to bring fresh water to Dimock, which, like many rural towns, has gotten its water from individual water wells. Coterra will also pay the water bills for 75 years for current and future residents.
I found out about the plea from this video by area resident, fracktivist, and citizen-journalist Vera Scroggins. It shows the press conference from the courthouse. The main speaker is Josh Shapiro, current attorney general and governor-elect of Pennsylvania. His office brought the charges against Cabot in 2020, before the merger that formed Coterra. Also speaking is Victoria Switzer, a Dimock resident who has been a leading voice in the cry for justice. After the press conference, Vera includes clips from a rally at the courthouse, featuring more familiar faces and voices from the anti-fracking movement.
I appreciated seeing the people who fought so long and hard for some measure of justice for the affected residents of Dimock, even though it is fourteen years late. As Victoria Switzer pointed out in the news conference, some people have passed away in those years. Others were forced to move out of the area. The fractures among townsfolk may never be mended, as some who had leased their property for drilling became hostile toward those whose water was contaminated because Cabot had to stop drilling and, therefore, paying royalties.
I am sickened to learn this week that, on the same day the plea was entered, the Department of Environmental Protection changed the order regarding gas extraction in the nine square mile area in Dimock. While Coterra may not drill vertically in that area, they are now allowed to drill horizontal laterals into it. These miles-long laterals will be burrowing into the Marcellus shale from vertical wells outside the exclusion zone and then explosive charges will fracture the shale to release fossil methane and potentially other types of hydrocarbons. Theoretically, that methane is then collected from the well for use. In practice, though, some of it also migrates through the rock layers for thousands of feet where it can contaminate aquifers or even reach the surface and cause atmospheric pollution. Additionally, fracking can mobilize radon and other naturally occurring radioactive elements, as well as waste products from the fracking fluids and brine. I am dumbfounded that DEP is risking further pollution in Dimock when so many have already suffered so much.
Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It’s (past) time for the Pennsylvania government to honor that Constitutional provision.