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Fracking blamed for ruining water wells, led to $4.1M settlement

Posted May 22, 2014

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— Ray Kemble, a mechanic and former gas field worker, is campaigning to stop fracking operations that he and his neighbors blame for ruining their water wells.

Kemble, 58, lives within a 9-square-mile area where Pennsylvania regulators have banned new gas wells after several high-profile cases of contamination led to a $4.1 million settlement against a gas company.

Dimock, a northeastern Pennsylvania township of about 1,500 residents, became a focus of the national debate a few years ago. Footage of faucet water lit on fire became emblematic of opponents' arguments against hydraulic fracturing.

Kemble, along with several of his neighbors, blamed Cabot Oil & Gas for their water turning cloudy and bubbly.

"I'm not against it, but do it right. Oh, that's right - you can't do it, so get the (expletive) out of my town," he said.

Kemble, who is 6-foot-4 and wears a ponytail through his Harley-Davidson cap, uses salty language as he talks disparagingly about people in the drilling industry.
Fracking blamed for ruining water wells, led to $4.1M settlement

In 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that poorly built Cabot well casings - the piping that lines a well as it passes through aquifers closer to the surface - allowed potentially explosive concentrations of stray methane to leak into more than a dozen private drinking wells.

Methane, the main component in natural gas, is nontoxic in water but can pose a danger. One neighbor's backyard well exploded because of gas buildup in the water.

Cabot officials have denied their drilling or fracking operations caused the contamination. The company agreed in a 2010 consent order with the state to pay $4.1 million to more than a dozen families, treat their water and buy out some of their homes. The company provided them large tanks called "water buffaloes" to store fresh water.

Filmmaker Josh Fox went into a Dimock home and lit faucet water on fire in his 2010 documentary "Gasland." The publicity of Dimock's troubles attracted the attention of Duke University's Robert Jackson, an environmental sciences professor who led a team that analyzed 141 drinking wells in northeastern Pennsylvania. They reported last summer that methane concentrations were an average of six times higher at homes less than seven-tenths of a mile from a gas well, or about 3,700 feet. Levels of ethane, another component of natural gas, were 23 times higher.

Jackson said poorly built well casings and geology likely caused stray gases to migrate into drinking wells. No chemicals used in fracking fluids about 7,500 feet deep were found in the water wells.

Jackson said the findings show the need for setback distances of at least 1,000 feet between homes and drilling.

In Pennsylvania, the setback is 500 feet. A proposal in North Carolina sets the buffer at 650 feet.

Jackson's team found no evidence of groundwater contamination from methane in Arkansas, where gas companies have drilled in the Fayetteville shale basin. He said different geology and rules than in Pennsylvania likely explain why.

Kemble worked for a Cabot subcontractor hauling water and fracking wastewater. He said the work stopped after he started reporting problems to state and federal regulators. Kemble did not care, he said.

"Because you are contaminating my backyard. This used to be a nice area. Now, you've got rigs and pads and all kinds of truck traffic."

This year, Kemble has lobbied lawmakers in Washington and California to restrict fracking.

Fracking resumed

About two years ago, Pennsylvania regulators allowed Cabot to resume fracking at seven existing wells in Dimock. The state's rationale was that fracking did not cause the methane contamination. The moratorium for new wells remains in effect.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sampled water wells here, determined in January the affected homeowners were treating their water and had eliminated the health risk. The EPA said no further action is required.

But some residents, including Kemble, do not accept the EPA's conclusions. They are outraged by the state's decision to allow Cabot to resume operations.

A Cabot spokesman in Pittsburgh could not be reached for comment.

In March, workers were preparing to frack a Cabot well atop a hill in front of Kemble's home, where he has posted anti-fracking signs and has hung an American flag upside down.

Kemble does not drink his well water on the 7 acres where he has a home and an auto shop. He hauls water and stores it in tanks next to his house.

Cabot settled a suit with about 30 families in Dimock in 2012. The settlement included a nondisclosure clause; Kemble renegotiated his settlement to remove the clause.

Jim Willis, a pro-drilling blogger who writes for the Marcellus Drilling News website from his home in New York, said Cabot has gotten a bad rap and tried its best to remedy an unfortunate situation. He said the state's position is that Cabot was at fault.

"So that's what I accept," Willis said. "They were at fault, and they did their best to correct it, as good corporate citizens. Time to move on. Case closed."

Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at barksdalea@fayobserver.com or 486-3565.


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