MONTROSE, SUSQUEHANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is formally charging Cabot Oil and Gas, a fracking company, for environmental crimes, his office announced on Monday.
The charges stem from a two-year grand jury investigation into alleged environmental damage caused by the Texas-based company’s operations in Susquehanna County.
“Pennsylvanians understand the careful balance that a strong natural resource economy requires — and companies who put their own profit above our laws, our health, and our constitutional right to clean and pure water will be held accountable,” said Attorney General Shapiro in a video released Monday. “Fracking companies come from all over the nation, backed by big investors and big influence, and too often act like they’re above the law with no care for the worker on the job site, the farmer next door, or the child impacted by their drilling. We’re here to hold these companies accountable, and make sure no matter how powerful or well-connected, the law applies equally in our Commonwealth.”
The attorney general is bringing a total of 15 criminal counts against Cabot Oil and Gas, including illegal discharge of industrial wastes and a violation of the Clean Streams Law. According to the Associated Press, these charges carry maximum fines of $50,000 or $25,000, depending on the count.
Public attention was brought to Cabot’s fracking activities after the drinking water well of Norma Fiorentino, a Dimock resident, exploded back in January 2009, according to the grand jury report. Also stated in the report, other residents experienced cloudy and fizzy water. In one case, Nolan Ely, a former employee of Cabot Oil and Gas tested their own water supply and when they held a match up to their drinking water, it caught fire and “flames came flying out of the jug”.
The water was found to be contaminated by methane, an odorless gas that occurs naturally in the soil. According to the grand jury report, when the ground was disturbed by Cabot’s drilling operations in the area, pockets of the gas trapped in the rock were released, allowing methane to travel upwards, ultimately ending up in the aquifers and drinking wells of residents. Methane is not usually toxic to humans but it can be explosive.
Another resident who testified before the grand jury said Cabot employees told them that the company could drill wells on their property even without agreement. The resident eventually agreed to allow gas wells to be installed on their property and soon experienced similar issues with their water. They testified that having a water supply contaminated by methane forced them to regularly make a 14-mile round trip to purchase drinking water.
A decade after the inital issues began occuring in Susquehanna County and at the time of their testimony before the grand jury, the drinking water was still contaminated.
Some residents who testified also reported having medical problems following the contamination of their water supply. Ely and his wife experienced problems with eyesight, dizziness and skin irritation. He told the grand jury, testing of their water found heightened levels of not just methane but also ethane, propane, sodium and magnesium. According to his testimony, Ely, who had worked on drilling sites for Cabot, was told “there is no possible way” the contamination could have been caused by fracking. Ely had 6 wells built by the company on the 183-acre farmland property he lived on with his wife, children and other extended family.
“We find that, over a period of many years, and despite mounting evidence, Cabot Oil and Gas failed to acknowledge and correct conduct that polluted Pennsylvania water through stray gas migration. Indeed, some of these gas wells have been in place for more than a decade, yet Cabot has only recently taken steps to remediate them,” the grand jury wrote in their report.
“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. We conclude that criminal charges are appropriate.”
George Stark, a spokesperson for Cabot Oil and Gas says the company was first made aware of the charges on Monday and is preparing a response. “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,” Stark wrote in a statement.