ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Federal environmental regulators say testing of scores of drinking-water wells in a northeastern Pennsylvania village has failed to turn up unsafe levels of contamination, providing ammunition to a gas driller that denies it polluted the aquifer with hazardous chemicals while prompting accusations the government is distorting the data.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released test results for an additional 12 homes on Friday and said they "did not show levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action." It was the fourth and final release of data for homes in Dimock, a rural Susquehanna County community that's found itself in the middle of a passionate debate over the safety of drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in deep rock formations like the Marcellus Shale.
The EPA testing is only a snapshot of the highly changeable aquifer and will not be the final word on the health of the water supply. But pro-industry groups and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston-based driller whose faulty gas wells were previously found to have leaked methane into the aquifer, assert the test results justify their position that Dimock's water is safe.
"Cabot is pleased that EPA has now reached the same conclusion of Cabot and state and local authorities resulting from the collection of more than 10,000 pages of hard data — that the water in Dimock meets all regulatory standards," spokesman George Stark said Friday.
But residents who are suing Cabot and anti-drilling activists say the EPA has issued a series of misleading statements on what the tests show. They say some of the wells had a combination of chemicals, metals, gases and salts that suggest the influence of drilling and fracking; that drinking-water standards have not been established for some of the toxic substances that turned up in the wells; and that testing also revealed high and sometimes explosive levels of methane in about a third of the wells. Opponents also raised technical concerns about the data.
"The fact remains, EPA's own tests have already vindicated the long-standing allegations of water contamination and clearly shows that the water of the affected residents is unfit for human consumption," said Claire Sandberg, executive director of Water Defense, an anti-drilling organization.
The group distributed a statement from Ron Bishop, a drilling opponent and chemist at the State University of New York at Oneonta, that said many of the wells are "significantly contaminated" with pollutants that threaten human health.
EPA spokesman Roy Seneca defended the quality of the testing, saying "the agency has used the best available scientific data to provide clarity to Dimock residents and address their concerns about the safety of their drinking water."
The EPA sampled the well water of a total of 61 homes, though it released data on only 59 because regulators were unable to contact two of the homeowners. The agency said it will resample four wells where earlier testing by Cabot and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection showed unsafe levels of contaminants. The EPA is also planning to follow up with an additional three homeowners who want their wells tested.
"Once all of the sample results are complete, we will conduct a comprehensive review to determine if there are any trends or patterns in the data as it relates to home well water quality," Seneca said.
State environmental regulators previously determined that Cabot contaminated the aquifer underneath homes along Carter Road in Dimock with explosive levels of methane gas, although they later determined the company had met its obligations under a consent agreement and allowed Cabot to stop delivering bulk and bottled water last fall.
The EPA said Friday one of the 12 water wells was found to have an elevated level of methane. The agency notified the homeowner, state officials and the Susquehanna County Emergency Management Agency.
Amid the squabble over test results, the Dimock plaintiffs, who sued Cabot in 2009, appear to have quietly entered into settlement talks with the company. One of their lawyers, Tate Kunkle, mentioned "progressing settlement negotiations" in a court filing late last month.