DIMOCK, Pa. — For the second time in five years, water sampling teams working for a federal agency fanned out across this rural town in the heart of northeastern Pennsylvania’s natural gas patch this week, gathering information in vials and bottles to help assess whether the drinking water is safe.
This time, the agency leading the sampling is not an environmental regulator looking for the source of contaminants, but a public health department — the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a small office under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — performing a rare exposure investigation, something it does only three or four times each year nationwide.
Residents — who’ve had their water tested with varying regularity over nearly a decade and seen more than a few activists show up in the hills of Susquehanna County to witness it — are taking the visit in stride. They hope to get new, improved information. They’re not counting on it.
Dimock is the only place in Pennsylvania where state regulators have shut down new Marcellus Shale drilling while a methane gas contamination plume subsides in the aquifer. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection blamed the contamination in 2009 on faulty cement and steel barriers in gas wells, a failure that made the community an international cautionary tale as advanced fracking and drilling technology unlocked new oil and gas reserves across the world over the past decade.
The moratorium on drilling in the 9-square-mile box has lasted for seven years.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a report last year announcing that its analysis of tests taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 64 Dimock water wells in 2012 revealed levels of contaminants at more than two dozen sites could cause a health or safety risk or otherwise make water unsuitable for drinking.
It recommended that state or federal regulators resample at least 17 of the most worrisome wells.
When that recommendation wasn’t adopted by the EPA or DEP, the small federal agency stepped in to perform its own investigation. It’s using similar methods as past tests, but it has a different aim.
“Our interest is in exposures to the residents,” said Robert Helverson, an environmental health scientist from the agency’s Philadelphia office. “It is about health. It is not about who’s at fault or how it happened.”
A different focus
The health agency’s report last year departed from the conclusions of other organizations. The EPA declared in 2012 that the water in Dimock was safe to drink or could be treated to safe levels, and closed its high-profile investigation.
Elements that concerned the federal health agency — like arsenic, manganese, sodium, iron and methane — occur naturally in the environment or could be associated with nearby natural gas well activities.
Its first analysis was conservative and assumed that residents were ingesting the maximum detected concentration of the chemicals found in the well water. It also took into account sensitive populations, like bottle-fed infants or those on a low-sodium diet.
A Pennsylvania DEP spokesman said on Wednesday that state regulators’ recent sampling and company test results do not show levels of contaminants associated with oil and gas activities in the Dimock water that could pose health or safety risks, although other contaminants unrelated to drilling could be in the water. DEP’s own investigation is ongoing because it has not determined that methane in water supplies has returned to levels that represent conditions in the groundwater before drilling began.
State regulators plan, at an unknown future date, to resample the 18 private wells named in a 2010 settlement and compliance order with Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., the Texas-based company DEP found responsible for contaminating the water with methane and metals, spokesman Neil Shader said.
Cabot has consistently said that any contamination in the Dimock water wells occurs naturally or is unrelated to its operations. “Numerous sets of data collected over the past several years in Dimock, by both EPA and DEP, have confirmed there is no threat to human health and the environment,” Cabot spokesman George Stark said.
For some residents here, flammable gas in water wells has been an ongoing plague that carries other worries with it.
The methane-charged water spurts so powerfully from the faucets in Erik and Susan Roos’s cozy purple farmhouse that it adds a tiresome slapstick quality to routine daily chores, spraying Mrs. Roos in the face in the morning when she first turns on the tap or knocking a plate out of Mr. Roos’s hand when he tries to rinse it in the sink.
“You’d think you’d get used to it,” he said.
They get regular sampling — Cabot contractors test their water twice a month for methane — but they were pleased to be getting a more comprehensive analysis after the Agency for Toxic Substances’ water sampling team packed up vans and pulled away on Wednesday.
“Ideally,” Mr. Roos said, “they will come back and say the water is better than it’s ever been, but —” he waved his hands to indicate that he has learned not to reckon on the ideal.
Between Monday and Friday, agency teams are collecting samples at 25 homes. First, they pull water from kitchen taps to assess the water that people might cook with and drink, then they purge wells through outdoor spigots and bottle up water that reflects the groundwater quality.
The first test is important because people in Dimock who do not trust their raw well water have turned to a range of alternatives on a scale from probably safe to startling: they rely on elaborate treatment systems, accept bulk water deliveries arranged by the gas company, truck in water from a public spring in a town about six miles north or pump water from streams and ponds into holding tanks connected to their plumbing.
Health officials worry about the surface-fed creek and pond water because it carries a high risk of bacterial contamination from nearby farm animals.
“We’re concerned that people are choosing what may taste better but they have nothing to tell them what’s in it,” Mr. Helverson said, “versus water that’s been tested and they know what’s in it and potentially have a treatment for that.”
‘We’re here to help’
Contractors are also testing for radon in water and indoor air, because residents and the agency wanted to explore whether the gas, which can be associated with the Marcellus Shale, might be elevated in Dimock homes.
Mr. Helverson could not estimate when the final analysis of the samples will be released, but he said agency staff members will call residents if they find anything of acute concern in the first draft of data.
Otherwise, residents will receive the full sampling results once they are validated. A public report will follow.
The Agency for Toxic Substances has investigated other sites in Pennsylvania after residents raised concerns about the effects of natural gas development on air, water and their health.
It sampled for air pollution emissions around a natural gas compressor station in Washington County in 2012 and evaluated the health effects of fine particles in the air around a compressor station in Susquehanna County in 2015. It also evaluated air and water samples around a 13.5 million-gallon holding pond for fracking wastewater in Washington County in 2015 and private water wells near a large wastewater release from a Bradford County gas well in 2011.
But few places have received the attention, or notoriety, of this pretty piece of country in a region known as the Endless Mountains.
Activists trailed the water sampling teams as they traveled from house to house this week.
By Wednesday, a local activist’s car had broken down twice and the Agency for Toxic Substances’ teams jump-started her car.
“Because we’re here to help and these are back country roads and you can get easily stranded,” Mr. Helverson said.
Even the celebrities came
At Ray Kemble’s house, the parade of anti-fracking signs continues down the front walk through the front door and onto the living room walls, where he displays two photos of the time Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and the actress Susan Sarandon arrived in a Mercedes bus at his auto shop and examined a gallon jug of his yellowed water.
With this round of water sampling, he said he hopes for “the truth,” but he isn’t expecting it. The water ran clear and had no foul odor when samplers collected it on Monday, a circumstance he believes is tied to an unusual amount of recent rain.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to get bull back,” Mr. Kemble, 61, said on Wednesday, adding an expletive to the “bull.”
Across the road, Bill Ely, 66, paused in the middle of mowing his hillside lawn. He had expected a testing crew that morning, but they hadn’t arrived yet.
“They want to check? I’m going to let them check it,” he said, reclining in the seat of his tape-patched John Deere.
He recently tied his household plumbing to spring water after he tired of the constant testing and maintenance involved with a complicated treatment system Cabot installed in a shed. The annual upkeep on that system would have cost him $17,000 a year once the company turned it over to him, he said.
He and his family have not drunk their well water since it first sputtered with gas eight years ago, but he hopes, in maybe three or four years, to drink the spring water in the new system after the wood used to build it cures.
“I’m upset about it — but I passed all that,” he said. “There is no place in the world I’d rather be than here.”
Laura Legere: email@example.com.