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Is Dimock's Water Really Safe? One Federal Health Agency Is Not So Sure

Kate Sinding

Posted September 14, 2012

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It looks like the federal government is still concerned about the water in Dimock, PA.  Although it’s been a few months since the EPA declared Dimock drinking water “safe” despite potentially explosive levels of methane it found in the water of several Dimock homes, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recently confirmed that it is continuing to investigate the potential long term exposure risks of showering, drinking, bathing, and washing with Dimock water.

The ATSDR—an independent agency under the Department of Health and Human Services and the principal federal public health agency involved with hazardous waste issues—began investigating water quality late last year, shortly after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed the Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation to stop daily deliveries of fresh water to local residents.  DEP had previously determined that Cabot was responsible for contaminating Dimock water with methane from its fracking operations, and tests conducted by both DEP and Cabot had shown that the water also contained pollutants like arsenic; barium; bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a plasticizer commonly called DEHP; glycol compounds, manganese, phenol, and sodium.

ATSDR’s initial report from December 2011 expressed concerns about the reliability of methane removal systems offered by Cabot to Dimock residents as part of a settlement agreement with DEP, and “the presence of other contaminants besides methane (metals, volatile organics and non-naturally occurring organics) for which the well treatment systems are not designed or in place to address.”  That report also recommended that:

A full public health evaluation should be conducted on the data from the site area. Because many of these compounds (e.g., metals) affect the same organ systems, ATSDR recommends evaluating the mixture for public health impacts using computational techniques or other suitable methods to evaluate the potential for synergistic actions: The cumulative concentration of all dissolved combustible gases should be considered to protect against the buildup of explosive atmospheres in all wells in the area.

According to this recommendation, the agency is continuing to pursue “a fairly comprehensive review” of Dimock water quality, which will include review of earlier tests conducted by DEP and Cabot as well as EPA’s recent test results.  There is currently no timeframe for the completion of the report.

Regardless of what the eventual outcome of the ATSDR investigation will be, one thing remains uncontested by anyone but the gas industry—Cabot’s drilling activities contaminated Dimock drinking water.  Thankfully, at least one government agency is devoting the time and resources to determine whether that water still poses an ongoing threat to the health of Dimock residents.

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JuniorSep 14 2012 02:30 PM

From your blog:

"Regardless of what the eventual outcome of the ATSDR investigation will be, one thing remains uncontested by anyone but the gas industry—Cabot’s drilling activities contaminated Dimock drinking water"

Can you back up that statement?

Kate SindingSep 14 2012 03:08 PM

Hi Junior,

In October of 2010, then DEP Secretary, John Hanger, issued an open letter regarding Dimock (a link to the letter is above, labeled as "previously determined"). Here are a few quotes from the letter:

"Cabot is responsible for the gas migration that has caused families to be without a permanent water supply for nearly 2 years.... This action [the State had offered to build a new water pipeline] is being taken based on overwhelming evidence that proves the Cabot wells are the source of the contamination."

Although the pipeline was ultimately scrapped shortly after the elections that year, the DEP has never rescinded this letter, the notices of violation it issued against Cabot, or the consent order it entered into with Cabot (available at, see paragraph F). Methane contamination is also consistent with EPA's recent findings, which I blogged about previously (see the link "potentially explosive" above).


Elizabeth CrumSep 14 2012 05:45 PM

From Kate's Blog: "Although the pipeline was ultimately scrapped shortly after the elections that year, the DEP has never rescinded this letter, the notices of violation it issued against Cabot, or the consent order it entered into with Cabot..."

Yes, right after the Reps took control of the more water pipeline. JHC!

Mike KnappSep 20 2012 02:14 PM

A more accurate way to describe the situation in Dimock would be to say that gas drilling increased methane levels in the drinking water there.

There was always methane in the water in Dimock. It's a fact of life up that way. USGS just recently did a study that found over 50% water wells in NY state have methane present, 9% were above action levels, and over 2% contained flammable amounts of methane. That's THOUSANDS of wells that contain flammable amounts of methane, naturally occurring, in areas nowhere near gas drilling.

The water has been deemed safe by Cabot (who has the most to lose by lying about it), 3rd party labs, the DEP, and the EPA, and Duke University also tested the water and found no evidence of frac fluid contamination.

Methane "contamination", on the other hand, is far more mundane in comparison (a fact that most on the anti drilling side refuse to acknowledge). Methane is not toxic. It is already present in your body in large amounts. Your body actually PRODUCES methane.

What happened in Dimock was unfortunate. But it was not a health concern. It was an inconvenience for residents, but it was not a risk. And it resulted in sweeping changes to the oil and gas regulations in Pennsylvania, specifically well construction standards.

It's time to let Dimcok go. It's not the smoking gun some people wanted it to be.

Mike Knapp
VP Land and Public Relations
MDS Energy, Ltd.
(yes, a big scary gas company)

Jeanne McMullenSep 22 2012 10:52 PM

Yeah Mike, I bet if your house contained combustible levels of methane coming out of your tap, you'd still be harping about it too. Northeastern Pennsylvania is too far north for residents to leave their windows open year round.

Krys CailSep 23 2012 09:02 AM

As a survivor of a house explosion decades ago caused by methane entering the basement through an old water well I concur that modest levels of methane are already present in some NYS wells. In my case the well had been vented but my parents, after having owned the home for years, covered a rusty old pipe in the garden, after which the basement filled with gas.... and when the furnace kicked on blew ten feet in the air and started burning. My parents had never been warned of any danger.... and the vent pipe was well on its way to rusting out when it was covered. Cracking stimulates huge reservoirs of methane to break free and migrate upwards, as methane is lighter than rock and earth. The underground pathways for this migration are as unknown and uncharted as all else deep underground. Were it terrorists doing something deep below our feet that might cause random homes to suddenly blow up, we would be outraged. Because some people make money from this, we delude ourselves into thinking we will be lucky and get rich, not unlucky and blown up. Any industrial.! process that spreads across multiple counties increased risks of exploding homes is unacceptable in a democracy. Fracking is the biggest threat to security in our homes NYS's rural people have ever faced. Just because the consequence of methane migration is slow to appear does not mean it is not deadly.....and that does not even consider the greenhouse gas effects which are global...

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