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In Fracking’s ‘Ground Zero,’ Pennsylvania Residents Feel Left Behind

As the state’s top prosecutor, gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro promised Dimock residents justice for years of water pollution. Resolution has yet to come.




A sign outside the township of Dimock, Pennsylvania. All photos by Audrey Carleton.

This is part one of a two-part series on the fracking saga that overwhelmed the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, and how the gubernatorial election could impact its long-suffering residents.

Ray Kemble, 30-year resident of Dimock, in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, still rations his water use.

You may know Kemble’s community from the award-winning film Gasland, the documentary that helped thrust the 1,300-person township into the spotlight in 2010, turning it into a “ground zero” in the debate over fracking after images of brown water went viral alongside videos of residents in other parts of the state lighting their tap water on fire

Kemble has spent the last 14 years engaged in community education around fracking, the method of natural gas extraction that involves shooting drilling fluid thousands of feet underground, carving an L-shaped path beneath the earth that risks polluting groundwater and even causing earthquakes. And despite all the attention focused on the issue and his town, Kemble says the well water that feeds his home in Susquehanna County is still not potable. So, he trucks 24 miles roundtrip out to a hydrant outside of town to manually fill up two 500-gallon water tanks that have sat in his basement for years.

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He uses the water from these tanks, colloquially known as “water buffaloes,” to shower, wash dishes and do laundry; he runs drinking water through an additional filter that sits next to his sink. When the tanks are near half-full, he trucks back out to the hydrant again and refills them — a process that takes a few hours in all — keeping a watchful eye on his consumption.

This routine is not convenient, but it’s one he’s adopted out of necessity: More than 10 years ago, natural gas drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas polluted private water wells across his town in one of the most famous cases of environmental contamination in recent history. On June 15, 2020, the culmination of a grand jury investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now running for governor as a Democrat, offered the promise of some relief. Shapiro’s office charged Coterra, then named Cabot, with 15 environmental crimes in northeastern Pennsylvania. 

“Cabot took shortcuts that broke the law, and damaged our environment — harming our water supply and public health,” Shapiro said at the time. Fracking has been linked to cancers, preterm birth and respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous system damage. In Dimock, residents experienced nausea and skin rashes, difficulty breathing and dizziness; well water there was found to contain methane, ethane, propane and sodium, according to a grand jury presentment. Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso, took around 20 samples of Dimock well water in service of the AG investigation, and confirmed to Capital & Main that some residents’ water remains contaminated today. 

“We are in the first stages of a long process to hold the well-connected accountable and meet the promise of our Constitution to protect our environment for generations to come,” Shapiro said at the time.

Dimock resident Ray Kemble shares an award he received for his environmental activism.

That process has taken much longer than residents hope, trying the patience of Kemble and some of his neighbors, who fear that Shapiro and his team of prosecutors are dragging their feet, all while regulators continue to grant the company permits to drill elsewhere and residents still lack easy access to clean water. And, as a contentious gubernatorial election nears, pitting Shapiro against a pro-drilling Republican opponent, Kemble’s faith in an outcome has dwindled.  

“Here we are, two and a half years later,” Kemble says. “They’ve never even stepped in the courtroom.” 

His neighbor, Victoria Switzer, who’s also had her water polluted, is just as frustrated: “If the AG cannot bring a company in for some kind of definitive resolution, who can? You do think that the AG, as the highest law in the commonwealth, would be able to do something. And what we have found … is that they can’t do anything either.” 

In response to a request for comment on this claim, Jacklin Rhoads, communications director for the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, noted that “complex investigations take time.” 

“We have filed criminal charges and the preliminary hearing has been waived,” she added. “The next step is a trial date or guilty plea. Our office is focused on holding companies who have broken our environmental laws accountable and restoring and protecting clean water for Pennsylvanians as best we can with the limited tools provided to us.” 

*   *   *

In Dimock, tucked between hills dotted with farmhouses and lined with clusters of goldenrod, live a handful of families who have lost their faith in Shapiro, whom they’d once believed would save them. Private water wells went bad here more than a decade ago following the fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that snakes across the commonwealth, from the northeast to the southwestern corners. Here, layers of flakey rock deposits that accumulated millions of years ago and now live thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface house trillions of cubic feet of natural gas deposits, enough to make it the largest reserve in the nation.

More than a decade ago, these deposits helped propel Pennsylvania to its status as the second largest producer of natural gas in the country. One class-action suit, a lawsuit against a victim and countless tests from state and federal regulators later, residents report that their water is still polluted, while the company responsible continues to drill nearby

When Coterra Energy was charged two years ago with 15 counts of environmental crimes, residents were hopeful that justice was close.

But the criminal investigation that followed has come under fire from some affected families, and it remains unclear whether Coterra — with which he state has been open to settling — will eventually be convicted in court. Some residents felt intimidated when Cabot representatives accompanied staff from the Attorney General’s Office to meetings in their own homes. Others have raised concerns about the impartiality of the president judge in the court where the case currently sits, who serves on the board of at least one charitable foundation with financial ties to Cabot.

A bottle of well water from Dimock.

Susquehanna County Judge Jason Legg is connected to Cabot through a charitable foundation that has received $6.4 million from the gas giant since 2010 and presides over the court where the case currently lives — though the case has not yet been assigned a judge, Legg is the only full-time judge there. There’s precedent for Legg’s recusal in cases involving Coterra; in February, he stepped down for the same reason from a case the natural gas giant filed against Kemble and his former attorneys for, among other charges, breach of contract of an earlier settlement for speaking publicly about the company.

Per a brief filed in that case, Judge Legg has leased several acres of his own land to the oil and gas industry, and, as recently as 2020, served on the board for a nonprofit that received a $23 million grant from a pipeline project for which Cabot was a partner. The decision was preempted by an opinion from Ron D. Castille, former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who wrote that “reasonable minds might even conclude that Cabot Oil is seeking a sympathetic judicial forum … with a seemingly friendly judicial official (in Cabot’s mind) to litigate its multimillion dollar damages claim.” (Cabot attempted to have this opinion thrown out, the Associated Press reported in March.) 

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the presence of Coterra staff at meetings with residents. They noted that a judge has not yet been assigned to the case, but did not comment on who is expected to be assigned, nor on the merits of the argument against Legg’s potential assignment as president judge of the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas.

*   *   *

Shapiro, the Democratic candidate, has a slight lead and raised significantly more money than his far-right Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who has amassed media attention for his extremist views and his presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and has vowed, if elected, to “unshackle” the state’s energy sector.  

Environmentalists across the state say the gubernatorial race is essential for securing a clean energy future for Pennsylvania. Mastriano is openly committed to reducing regulation on the natural gas industry, and has the record to prove it — most recently, introducing a bill that would remove the state from a regional carbon-trading compact and end a moratorium on fracking in state parks. Shapiro, meanwhile, has won plaudits for his strong environmental record: He held both regulators and the natural gas drillers to account in the release of the grand jury report on Cabot’s activities and the fracking industry at large, has vowed to build out the state’s clean energy offerings and sued the federal EPA for failing to regulate methane.

He has, however, neglected to take a firm stance against fracking, instead throwing his weight behind the regulations supported by his office’s grand jury report, like 2,500 foot setbacks between drill sites and residences and requirements that industry disclose the chemicals it uses to drill. These, he says, amount to “responsible fracking,” a compromise he told the Delaware Valley Journal in April he supports. 

“That’s an interesting phrase,” says Barry Rabe, professor of public policy and environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “I’m not sure that the attorney general has made that terribly clear. Sounds as if it would not [amount to] any major restrictions on drilling.” 

Pennsylvania’s former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection John Hanger says he has slightly more confidence in Shapiro’s stance on fossil fuels. “I’ve known Josh Shapiro for a long time,” Hanger said. “I wouldn’t call him anti-gas at all. But I would say he’s absolutely comfortable enforcing a law against the gas industry.”

*   *   *

In Dimock, the best outcome of the criminal investigation for Kemble and Switzer would be the fulfillment of a promise once made to them and their neighbors: a municipal water line carrying clean water from nearby Montrose. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection planned an $11.8 million, 5.5 mile pipeline that would bring them clean water from the Lake Montrose treatment plant, thus ending their reliance on what Hildenbrand calls “band-aid” solutions “over a gushing wound,” like water treatment systems or water buffaloes that must be manually refilled. The official behind that plan was Hanger, then secretary, who signed multiple consent orders with Cabot Oil & Gas after concluding that it was responsible for methane pollution in water wells that served Dimock homes.

“We tried all of these other solutions,” Hanger said. “They haven’t worked in terms of getting [Dimock] clean water. So the water line was it.”

That plan was quashed just months later, following the election of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, by Hanger himself, who claims that he knew Corbett would not see the line’s construction through to fruition. Hanger instead settled with Cabot, requiring the company to give 19 affected families a sum of money equal to $50,000 or twice the assessed value of their homes.

Ray Kemble checks on the storage tanks in his basement he relies upon for clean water.

Hanger says the settlement, though a blow to some residents, seemed the only way to secure any amount of assistance for Dimock families — but he remains firm that a water line would still be useful today. (The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on whether construction of such a line would result from its ongoing criminal case.)

“Pretty much along the path that was originally intended,” Hanger says, “would be good for economic development in Susquehanna County.” 

He blames the fate of the water line, like other regulations involving the fossil fuel industry, on partisan politics in Pennsylvania: the general historical trend of Democrats attempting to reign in the fossil fuel industry while Republicans aim to unleash it. The governor he served under, Ed Rendell, was thought of as friendly to the fossil fuel industry, but, Hanger says, he was sympathetic to a water line. Had the 2010 election been won by a Democrat, he says, the water line would have been built. Yet, after Corbett, the following two elections were won by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — and the water line remains dead on arrival. 

*   *   *

Sitting at his living room table just two months before the gubernatorial election, Kemble scans through his laptop and pulls up the YouTube trailer for an indie documentary for which he was interviewed in 2014. Five minutes in, the trailer pans to a 2010 clip of a group of five Dimock residents being interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. “How many of you lost your water supply?” she asks; all five raise their hands. Kemble, standing above the screen, points fervently and exclaims, “Dead, dead, dead.” 

That a handful of the residents who fought Cabot over their water problems have died in the time since that special was shot is a testament to how long it’s been since their water first went bad — and to how hard it is to stand up to a gas major over the consequences of its drilling and win.

“See, time works for the industry,” Switzer said. The company has received more than 1,400 gas well permits in Susquehanna County since the DEP first signed a consent order acknowledging its wrongdoing in 2009, 214 of them since the AG filed charges against it; it’s been cited for around 790 and 269 violations in the county, respectively, in the same time periods. The company has also spent more than $100,000 on the election this year — it appears as though none to either gubernatorial candidate; the majority of expenses reported on its campaign finance reports are broadly labeled as “aggregate out of state expenses.” At least $5,000 of this money went to supporting two Republican state senators — Eugene Yaw (23) and Lisa Baker (20) — who represent parts of Susquehanna County and have advocated against fracking regulations.

Despite being thrust back into the limelight in 2020, Dimock has mostly fallen back into the shadows. At least two families sold their land to Cabot; other residents have died, and many are loath to discuss the issue. The majority of the original plaintiffs who sued the company were reported to have signed nondisclosure agreements after settling. The terms of those settlements were kept confidential

While yet unable to secure the outcome they wanted for Dimock, Kemble has been busy making rounds through other states, urging legislators to adopt fracking bans and prevent the eventuality of a Dimock 2.0. Kemble’s most recent venture took him to Ireland, where he’s urging local leaders to pull the plug on a planned liquified natural gas terminal. 

“It just feels hopeless,” Vera Scroggins, an environmental activist, admits of trying to salvage water in Dimock. “But what we feel we’ve done has informed other areas. Other areas were more successful. They took it seriously. And they decided to ban, and keep them out.” 

Environmental activist Vera Scroggins.

With a bit of hindsight, Dimock resident Switzer calls herself an accidental activist — a title she did not wish to take on, and one that she had to choose to let go of after years of fighting for clean water for her community. It simply got too tiring to remain involved. Her water isn’t clean, and she remains resentful both of the circumstances that led her there, and of the lack of recourse she’s seen despite devoting hours to protesting and sitting for interviews. She remains engaged in environmental activism, though, and has since devoted herself to a new cause — preventing the discharge of fracking waste into the creek that runs through her backyard.

There was a period where Switzer had all but given up on the hope of receiving clean water for her home. The announcement that the AG’s office would be reupping the case brought her renewed faith. But as the criminal trial proceeded, her grasp on that faith began to slip away. 

“In 2022, to have the highest law of the land sitting on this, having dangled it in front of us again, it’s cruelty, what it’s done to people’s nerves again,” Switzer said.

“I mean, I know how it’s affected me again,” she said. “And I don’t want this.” 

*   *   *

Fracking might not be the most important issue for all Pennsylvania voters, but it has long divided the community. A majority of residents in Susquehanna County supported the industry, Hanger says, believing in its economic potential, offering jobs and income in leases and royalties. This conviction is common in rural industrial communities across the commonwealth, despite research that shows the fracking boom didn’t deliver the job growth it promised, says Berwood Yost, director of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy at Franklin & Marshall College.

For Dimock families — both those whose lives have been upended by the natural gas industry and those who’ve been supported by it — the outcome of the governor’s race could have a tangible effect on their livelihoods. 

“Whether that means the pipeline gets built, I can’t say,” Hanger said of a Shapiro victory. “But I know that [with] his opponent, Mastriano, there is zero chance, not only for the pipeline, but for any reasonable enforcement of the laws against the gas industry.” 

But Susquehanna County residents say they’re not so sure — and, in fact, feel that Shapiro’s bid for governor has distracted him from their case, for which they’re eager to see resolution. 

Scroggins says she prefers to opt out from partisan politics and vote independent — sometimes she votes green, sometimes libertarian, sometimes socialist. Switzer, for her part, says she’s voting for Shapiro out of fear of what a Mastriano victory could mean for Pennsylvania in general, on issues that go beyond the environment. But she’s certain that their actions when it comes to fracking will result in basically the same outcome.

“It’s not Democratic or Republican,” Switzer says. “Mastriano says, ‘I will drill everywhere day one,’ but he might be just being more honest than Shapiro, who is pretending that he’s going to care about the environment.” 

And she’s not holding her breath waiting for any quick resolution to the pollution crisis. About a week before the election, she spotted a sign for a new fracking pad just outside a nine-square-mile zone where a fracking moratorium was created around her community in 2009, and says she’s getting ready for the influx of trucks, noise pollution and late-night lights to flood her street once again. “There’s no help for the victims in the shale field,” Switzer said. “I’m not gonna paint an illusion here. It’s not coming. The white hats aren’t coming. It won’t be DEP. It won’t be EPA. It won’t be the governor. It won’t be the attorney general. There is no one.” 

The best she can hope for is access to clean water to help market her house so she can move away. That simple demand once seemed within her grasp. Today, it feels like a distant dream.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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