One of the region’s biggest natural gas developers was charged with numerous felony environmental crimes following a two-year grand jury investigation, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Monday.
Shapiro is charging the company with seven counts of prohibition against discharge of industrial wastes, seven counts of prohibition against other pollution and one count of violating the Clean Streams Law, following a statewide grand jury’s recommendation.
Cabot, based in Houston, has leases on tens of thousands of acres in Susquehanna County, home to some of the Marcellus Shale formation’s richest natural gas reserves.
The grand jury found hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Dimock Twp. polluted local water supplies and led to other environmental hazards. The small town has long been at the center of environmental debates over the controversial extraction technique. The 2010 film “Gasland” was based partly on the fracking controversy there.
A Cabot spokesman said the company just became aware of the charges on Monday and needed more time to review them before reacting in detail.
“Cabot is a leader in the energy industry and we value community commitment and environmental compliance,” George Stark said in a written statement. “Cabot will continue to work constructively with regulators, political representatives, and most importantly our neighbors in Pennsylvania to be responsible stewards of natural resources and the environment.”
The 18-page grand jury presentment summarized examples of Cabot’s failure to properly secure well casings, which gave methane and other contaminants a path to reach drinking water supplies, sickening many.
Dimock residents became suspicious of fracking in 2009 when the late Norma Jean Fiorentino’s wellhead spontaneously exploded. Testing revealed high methane levels in her water. The state Department of Environmental Protection advised Dimock residents to vent their wells.
Subsequent testing at the Fiorentino’s property showed high levels of other harmful chemicals, including manganese double the state limit and a high level of lithium in 2012. Tests in 2018 found arsenic, propane and uranium among other contaminants, the grand jury presentment says.
The DEP investigated and found methane in water supplies matched the chemical fingerprint of old, deep-earth methane, not the surface-level stuff that’s common in that part of Susquehanna County.
Fiorentino, who had become an early symbol in the anti-fracking movement, died in March. She was 76.
Homeowners sued; some later settled with the company.
“I don’t think the water will ever clear up,” said Jean Carter, 78, one of the original plaintiffs along with her late husband, Ronald Carter. “No one right around here has good water.”
She left the trailer she lived in a decade ago for an old log cabin nearby where she now lives with her grandson. He helps her with odd jobs around the house and with keeping up with nearly 80 acres.
The Carters considered moving, but Jean Carter believes the poor water quality and the stigma attached to Dimock has eroded property values. Ten years later, she still buys bottled water every week for cooking and drinking. Most people have resolved to coexist with the industry, she said.
“I think that we’re all just living with the situation the way that it is,” she said.
The grand jury presentment accuses Cabot of knowing about the problems starting a decade ago, but failing to act until only recently.
“In light of Cabot’s long-term indifference to the damage it caused to the environment and citizens of Susquehanna County, these were not merely technical violations,” the grand jury wrote.
Cabot is the second natural gas operator to face criminal charges as a result of the broad-reaching grand jury investigation. Range Resources acquiesced to two presentments and pleaded no contest to charges that it was negligent in handling waste water and drill cuttings at well sites in Washington County.
“Unlike Range Resources ... Cabot continues to abdicate their responsibility to our environment and to the safety of our residents,” Shapiro said in a video statement posted Monday.
The presentment is part of ongoing investigations into crimes by gas developers in the state, and Shapiro, who is up for reelection this year and whom some have speculated might run for governor when Wolf’s second term expires, promised more would come down.
“We are in the first quarter of a long process that will result in more criminal charges. We must protect Pennsylvanians,” he said. “This work will not stop.”