On Tuesday, gas company Coterra Energy pleaded no contest to environmental crimes related to contaminated water supplies from fracking operations more than a decade ago. The plea is the culmination of a long saga that has left residents of a small Pennsylvania town without clean drinking water for 14 years, and it resulted in some semblance of accountability for a company that has long denied any wrongdoing.
“We are here today because fundamentally Pennsylvanians have a right to clean air and pure water. And for too long, the good people of Dimock have waited to have the clean water that our constitution promises restored to them in their homes and throughout our community,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a press conference on November 29. “More than a decade of waiting for a permanent plan for clean drinking water is far too long.”
Dimock is a small town located in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, and it sits atop the Marcellus shale formation, a prolific source of shale gas. In 2006, Cabot Oil & Gas — the corporate predecessor of Coterra — obtained the mineral rights from multiple residents of Dimock and began fracking operations. That is when problems with contaminated water began.
“Almost immediately after drilling began, residents in the area began to experience changes to their water. Some homeowners began to see a great amount of effervescence in their water. Others started noticing considerable sediment,” a 2020 grand jury investigation found.
One Dimock resident, Nolan Scott Ely, had six wells drilled on his property. He had worked in the oil and gas industry and had even worked at some of Cabot’s operations. He was confident that the drilling would not negatively impact his water. But his wife began experiencing nausea and skin blotches, and testing showed that the Ely’s water was contaminated with methane, according to the grand jury investigation. When Ely held a lighter up to a jug containing his tap water, it lit on fire. He was also able to light water coming out of his faucet on fire.
A water well of another Dimock resident, Norma Fiorentino, exploded in January 2009.
Scenes like this gained widespread attention after the 2010 Josh Fox documentary “Gasland,” and the town of Dimock became one of the most iconic and high-profile examples of water contamination from fracking.
For years, Cabot Oil & Gas had denied that it was at fault. But a 2010 investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) concluded that Cabot’s drilling activities contaminated the water supplies of 19 homes on one stretch of Carter Road in Dimock. The agency and Cabot entered into a Consent Order and Settlement Agreement that year that demarcated a nine-mile “box” encompassing the homes in Dimock within which Cabot was no longer allowed to drill going forward.
Some residents settled privately with Cabot in the years following the contamination, others decided to sue. A historic 2016 verdict ruled in favor of the Dimock residents and ordered Cabot to pay $4.24 million to two families, including Ely’s, but that decision was subsequently overturned by a Magistrate just a year later.
But in 2020, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro brought criminal charges against Cabot following the grand jury investigation. That led to this week’s no contest plea by Coterra, which inherited Cabot’s legal woes when the company merged with another firm last year. Through it all, many of the affected Dimock households have still not had clean water restored to them after their water wells were contaminated over a decade earlier. A 2016 federal report confirmed that the water was unsafe to drink, showing worrying levels of chemicals such as arsenic and lithium, as well methane, metals, and salts.
“The residents of Dimock serve as a stark reminder that when big corporations are not held accountable, then the people suffer,” Shapiro said.
As part of the plea, Coterra will pay $16.29 million for the construction of a new public water line in the county, and the company will cover the cost of bottled water in the interim while the line is built. Coterra will also cover the water bills for impacted residents for the next 75 years.
“After more than a decade of denials, of shirking responsibility and accountability, Coterra pleaded to their crime, and the people of Dimock finally had their day in court,” Shapiro said.
He cautioned that state laws leave few legal tools to hold corporate polluters accountable. “Here in Pennsylvania, breaking criminal environmental laws sadly only yields small dollar fines compared to the damage that is caused and the havoc that is wreaked,” Shapiro said. But he stressed that the plea is “historic” both in terms of the penalty and because it will result in a permanent solution for Dimock.
Coterra did not respond to a request for comment from DeSmog.
“12 years ago, these same folks were promised a water line by DEP and the Commonwealth, only to have it squashed. And for the next 12 years, these people had to find very creative ways to get water for their homes. Water for their families, their kids, their critters. And it was not pretty,” Victoria Switzer, a Dimock resident, said at the press conference. She said one neighbor had a child that went from kindergarten to college without ever having clean water from their tap.
She credited Attorney General Shapiro for following through and getting results while other state officials and regulators did not. “Our own elected officials, DEP, EPA, failed us miserably,” Switzer said.
Ray Kemble, another Dimock resident whose water was contaminated, also expressed relief in the plea, saying in a statement: “Dimock residents have known for 14 years that Cabot Oil & Gas is guilty of contaminating our water. Finally, some justice.”