By Michael Rubinkam
Montrose, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s most active gas driller pleaded no contest in early December to criminal charges, capping a landmark environmental case against a company that prosecutors say polluted a rural community’s drinking water 14 years ago and then tried to evade responsibility.
Residents of the tiny crossroads of Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania say they have gone more than a decade without a clean, reliable source of drinking water after their aquifer was ruined by Houstonbased Coterra Energy Inc.
Under a plea deal entered in Susquehanna County Court, Coterra agreed to pay $16.29 million to fund construction of a new public water system and pay the impacted residents’ water bills for the next 75 years.
“After more than decade of denials, of shirking responsibility and accountability, Coterra pleaded to their crime, and the people of Dimock finally had their day in court,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the state’s incoming governor, said outside the courtroom. “Today is further proof that you don’t get to just walk away from the harm you do here in Pennsylvania.”
The plea – the result of years of negotiations between Coterra and the attorney general’s office – represents a milestone in one of the most prominent pollution cases ever to emerge from the U.S. drilling and fracking boom. Dimock drew national notoriety after residents were filmed lighting their tap water on fire in the Emmy Award-winning 2010 documentary “Gasland.”
Coterra’s corporate predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., was charged in June 2020 with 15 criminal counts, most of them felonies, after a grand jury investigation found the company drilled faulty gas wells that leaked flammable methane into residential water supplies in Dimock and surrounding communities.
The grand jury blasted what it called Cabot’s “long-term indifference to the damage it caused to the environment and citizens of Susquehanna County.”
Cabot, which merged with Denver-based Cimarex Energy Co. to form Coterra, has long maintained the gas in residents’ water was naturally occurring.
Coterra pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of prohibition against discharge of industrial wastes under the state’s Clean Streams Law. The plea means Coterra does not admit guilt but agreed to accept criminal responsibility.
“Coterra has worked closely with the Office of Attorney General to resolve historical matters and create a path forward for all parties,” company spokesperson George Stark said via email. He said Coterra “strives to follow best practices, exceed industry standards, and to continue to be a valuable community partner.”
Many residents have avoided using their well water since the aquifer was contaminated with methane and heavy metals, using bottled water, bulk water purchased commercially, and even water drawn from creeks and artesian wells instead.
“These people had to find very creative ways to get water for their homes, water for their families, their kids, their critters, and it was not pretty,” Dimock resident Victoria Switzer said recently. “It was just crazy, people trying to find water.”
Switzer, whose house will be connected to the new water line, called it “wonderful news”– and a long time coming.
Another resident, Scott Ely, said some of his neighbors had moved away or developed health problems as a result of Coterra’s practices, while his own children, now in college, had grown up “without a safe water source.”
Residents were informed of the plea deal recently. A public utility, Pennsylvania American Water, plans to drill two wells – what it calls a “public groundwater system” – and build a treatment plant that will remove any contaminants from the water before piping it to about 20 homes in Dimock.
The utility estimates that construction will take about three years, during which Coterra will be required to provide individual treatment systems and bottled water to impacted residents.
The settlement comes near the end of Shapiro’s tenure as attorney general. A Democrat who will be sworn in as governor in January, pledged more aggressive regulatory oversight of the industry.
“We have to change our regulatory structure here in the commonwealth,” Shapiro said. “We have to make sure we are setting clear rules of the road and holding industry accountable. If the regulators fail to do that, then industry is not going to be constrained and they’re going to go ahead and put profits before people. And that’s where the danger comes in.”
Shapiro demurred on the question of whether Coterra would be permitted to resume drilling in a 9-square-mile area of Dimock where it has long been banned. Shapiro said he would review the matter with his new environmental secretary after taking office as governor.
The criminal case has not slowed Coterra’s business. It is the leading shale gas driller in the nation’s No. 2 natural gas-producing state.