DEP keeps Cabot on hold in Dimock

BY LAURA LEGERE, Times-Shamrock Writer

The Department of Environmental Protection will not yet allow Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. to resume operations in a nine-square-mile area of Susquehanna County, saying there appear to be persistent flaws in 22 of 43 of the company’s gas wells in the area.

The agency halted Cabot’s operations in the section of Dimock Twp. in April 2010 after it found methane it attributed to faulty Cabot wells seeping into 18 drinking water supplies. In December, Cabot and DEP agreed to a $4.6 million settlement that opened the door for Cabot to resume drilling in the off-limits area by the end of April if it fixed the problem wells.

In a letter last week, DEP Oil and Gas Regional Manager Craig Lobins said Cabot had not fully complied with some of the requirements of the settlement.

Pressure tests show gas is channeling between layers of cemented casing in 22 of the company’s gas wells. Gas in the space between strings of casing in a natural gas well, called the annular space, generally indicates that the well has “defective, insufficient or improperly cemented casing,” Mr. Lobins wrote.

The gas in 14 of the wells is of “most concern,” Mr. Lobins wrote, because it is present in the space between the outermost casing closest to water supplies and the next nested string of casing, indicating a leak or defective cement.

The channeled gas in the Cabot wells does not appear to be associated with just one method of well construction or one type of cement, he added.

Cabot has maintained that its operations did not cause the methane to seep into water supplies and has argued over two years of sometimes contentious correspondence with the DEP that the gas occurs naturally in the aquifer.

Cabot spokesman George Stark said Monday that the company “fully believes our operations are in full compliance” with the state’s oil and gas regulations and has been working closely with the department to meet the terms of the settlement.

“We will respond to the points raised in the letter in an appropriate and timely manner and look forward to continuing this important dialogue,” he said.

In addition to the channeled gas in the 22 wells, the department found that Cabot has not resolved violations issued in January for defective casing in three additional gas wells drilled about 400 feet north of the affected area, Mr. Lobins said in the letter. He also noted that Cabot had waited more than the required 24 hours to tell the department about gas pressure in the annulus of a well that was first deemed defective in 2009.

The letter also clarified the company’s obligation to continue testing and providing water to families whose wells have been affected by the drilling.

Cabot must conduct water monitoring to meet the terms of the December settlement. DEP has since stopped conducting its own routine monitoring of methane in the families’ water supplies.

The issue is complicated because 12 of the affected families who are suing Cabot have refused to allow Cabot contractors into their homes, saying they do not trust them to take accurate samples or report accurate results.

“The same gas company that disputes the DEP findings that there is anything wrong with their gas wells gets to do the reporting and testing?” resident Victoria Switzer asked.

Now, the department is considering resuming testing of the water supplies if the families’ lawyers do not grant Cabot contractors access to the homes and Cabot promises to cover the DEP’s costs, according to the letter.

Mr. Stark said Cabot will work with the families’ attorneys to try to get access to the homes, but the company’s priority is resuming the testing and obtaining the results.

“We would work with the department or the contractor to get that information,” he said.

The families’ lawyer, Marc J. Bern, declined to comment on the DEP letter on Monday.