A Pennsylvania state water and sewer project financing agency on Tuesday approved nearly $12 million to extend municipal water service to residents of a small town who are complaining of tainted well water in the midst of heavy Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.
State environmental regulators view the money approved by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority board as essentially a down payment, saying they plan to sue to recoup the money from Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.
The board voted after hearing a lawyer's threat that Cabot will sue to overturn an approval, as well as pleas from Dimock residents who say that for two years, they have been unable to use their brown, methane-tainted and rash-causing well water.
One man from Dimock, a rural community 15 miles south of the New York border in northeastern Pennsylvania, toted a plastic milk jug of brown water -- poured from his tap, he said.
The clash between the state and Cabot over Dimock is Pennsylvania's highest-profile regulatory dispute in the Marcellus Shale since drilling crews, financed by cash from around the world, were lured two years ago by what could become the country's largest natural gas field.
"The only thing that I regret is that it's taken two years for this company, Cabot, to be faced with a solution," John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said after the meeting. "You saw today what Cabot does: They bring the lawyers in. They've done that for two years. They are unique in having lawyered up, as opposed to really dealing with the problem. Every other company I've dealt with ... has accepted responsibility and gone through the work of fixing the problem."
The applicant, the Pennsylvania American Water Co., would use the money to connect 14 households, and possibly more, to the water system of Montrose, a town about 6 miles away. Construction is expected to take more than a year, and would be completed after a newly elected governor, Republican Tom Corbett, takes office in January.
Cabot denies that it is responsible for the polluted water wells, saying its wells were properly designed and built to prevent gas from migrating underground and into the water table.
A Houston-based lawyer representing Cabot, Douglas Daniels, asked the board to put off consideration of the application, and said its rushed filing and consideration violates state laws and agency procedures -- assertions rejected by authority staff.
Daniels then said numerous parties, including some local governments, plan to sue over the approval.
"Because Secretary Hanger has made abundantly clear ... that he will seek to use the resources of the commonwealth to force Cabot to pay for this line, Cabot will have no choice to join in those efforts," he said.
The board approved a $11.6 million grant and $172,682 loan.