MONTROSE, Pa. – Pennsylvania’s top gas driller pleaded no contest to criminal charges on Tuesday, ending a landmark environmental case against a company prosecutors say polluted a rural community’s drinking water 14 years ago and then tried to evade responsibility.
Residents of the tiny intersection of Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania say they have been without a clean, reliable source of drinking water for more than a decade after their aquifer was destroyed by Houston-based Coterra Energy Inc.
In a plea deal concluded in Susquehanna County Court, Coterra agreed to pay $16.29 million to fund the construction of a new public water system and pay affected residents’ water bills for the next 75 years pay.
“After more than a decade of denial, dodging responsibility and accountability, Coterra pleaded guilty to their crime, and the people of Dimock finally had their day in court,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the state’s new governor, said outside the courtroom. “Today is further proof that you can’t outrun the damage you’re doing here in Pennsylvania.”
The pleading — the result of years of negotiations between Coterra and prosecutors — marks a milestone in one of the most high-profile pollution cases to emerge from the US drilling and fracking boom. Dimock rose to national fame after residents were filmed lighting their tap water in the 2010 Emmy-winning documentary Gasland.
Coterra’s corporate predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., was charged with 15 felony counts in June 2020, most of them felonies, after a grand jury inquest found the company drilled faulty gas wells that injected flammable methane into the water supply of Residential communities in Dimock and surrounding areas had released.
The grand jury blasted Cabot’s “long-term indifference to the harm she has done to the environment and the citizens of Susquehanna County.”
Cabot, which merged with Denver-based Cimarex Energy Co. to form Coterra, has long claimed the gas is naturally occurring in residents’ water.
Coterra did not contest any charges relating to the ban on discharging industrial waste under the state’s Clean Streams Act. The plea means that Coterra does not admit guilt but has agreed to accept criminal responsibility.
“Coterra has worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office to resolve historical matters and provide a way forward for all parties,” company spokesman George Stark said via email. He said Coterra “is committed to following best practices, exceeding industry standards and continuing to be a valuable community partner.”
Many residents have avoided using their well water since the aquifer became contaminated with methane and heavy metals, instead using bottled water, commercially purchased water, and even water from streams and artesian wells.
“These people had to find very creative ways to get water for their homes, water for their families, their children, their animals, and it wasn’t pretty,” said Victoria Switzer of Dimock on Tuesday. “It was just crazy that people were trying to find water.”
Switzer, whose home will be connected to the new water main, called it “wonderful news” — and it will be a long time coming.
Another resident, Scott Ely, said some of his neighbors had moved away or developed health issues because of Coterra’s practices, while his own children, who are now in college, were growing up “without a safe water source.”
“There’s so much heartbreak,” he said.
Local residents were notified 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 it is piped to about 20 homes in Dimock. The utility estimates construction will take about three years, during which time Coterra will need to provide individual treatment systems and bottled water to affected residents.
The settlement comes just before the end of Shapiro’s tenure as Attorney General.
On Tuesday, Shapiro, a Democrat who will be sworn in as governor in January, promised more aggressive regulatory oversight of the industry.
“We need to change our regulatory structure here in the Commonwealth,” Shapiro said. “We need to make sure we set clear traffic rules and hold the industry accountable. If regulators don’t do this, the industry won’t be curtailed and they will go ahead and prioritize profits over people. And that’s where the danger comes in.”
Shapiro disagreed on 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 will raise the matter with his incoming environment minister after he takes office as governor.
The criminal case did not slow down Coterra’s business. It is the leading shale gas driller in the country’s No. 2 natural gas producing state.