Gas driller pleads no contest to polluting town’s water

Nov 28, 2022, 11:36 PM | Updated: Nov 29, 2022, 5:00 pm

Craig Stevens holds a bottle of brown water as he speaks with members of the media outside the Susq...

Craig Stevens holds a bottle of brown water as he speaks with members of the media outside the Susquehanna County Courthouse in Montrose, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Pennsylvania's most active gas driller has pleaded no contest to criminal environmental charges in a landmark pollution case. Houston-based Coterra Energy Inc. entered its plea Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

MONTROSE, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s most active gas driller pleaded no contest Tuesday 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 Houston-based 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 Tuesday. “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.”

“There’s so much heartache,” he said.

Residents were informed of the plea deal last week. 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.

On Tuesday, Shapiro, 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 (23-square-kilometer) area of Dimock where it has long been banned. Shpairo 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.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Image: This photo provided by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a derailed BNSF train on t...

Associated Press

Judge orders BNSF to pay Washington tribe nearly $400M for trespassing with oil trains

BNSF Railway must pay the sum to a Native American tribe in Washington after it ran 100-car trains with crude oil on the tribe's reservation.

14 hours ago

Photo: In this photo provided by Tieanna Joseph Cade, an amusement park ride is shown stuck with 30...

Associated Press

Crews rescue 28 people trapped upside down high on Oregon amusement park ride

Emergency crews in Oregon rescued 28 people after they were stuck dangling upside down high on a ride at a century-old amusement park.

15 hours ago

juneteenth shooting texas...

Associated Press

2 killed and 6 wounded in shooting during a Juneteenth celebration in a Texas park

A shooting in a Texas park left two people dead and six wounded, including two children, on Saturday, authorities said.

2 days ago

Photo: Israeli soldiers drive a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, Wednesday, J...

Jack Jeffery, The Associated Press

8 Israeli soldiers killed in southern Gaza in deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months

An explosion in Gaza killed eight Israeli soldiers, the military said Saturday, making it the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

2 days ago

Juanita Beach Kirkland...

Kathy McCormack and Nick Perry, The Associated Press

‘Tis the season for swimming and bacteria alerts in lakes, rivers

With summer about to start, many people flocking to their favorite swimming holes may also want to read up on bacteria warnings.

3 days ago

Image: Members of the Makah Indian tribe paddle away from the rising sun as they head from Neah Bay...

Associated Press

Washington’s Makah Tribe clears major hurdle toward resuming traditional whale hunts

The U.S. granted the Makah Indian Tribe a long-sought waiver that helps clear the way for its first sanctioned whale hunts since 1999.

5 days ago

Gas driller pleads no contest to polluting town’s water