As fracking lawsuits draw to a close, a look back at what happened in Dimock

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FILE – In this Sept. 20, 2012, file photo, Ray Kemble, of Dimock, Pa., holds a jug of his well water on his head while marching with demonstrators against hydraulic fracturing outside a Marcellus Shale industry conference in Philadelphia. Federal government scientists are collecting water and air samples in the first week of August 2017 from about 25 homes in Dimock, Pa., a tiny, rural crossroads about 150 miles north of Philadelphia that became a flashpoint in the national debate over fracking.

Remember the Pennsylvania town where residents’ taps dispensed brown fluid, water became flammable, and one resident’s backyard well blew up?  Few had heard of Dimock, Pa., until the award-winning 2010 documentary Gasland launched a massive environmental movement to oppose fracking.  Then the town got more attention in the pro-fracking movie FrackNation, and counter-protests sprung up in small towns where fracking money had revitalized lagging economies.  In the intervening years, residents have continued to struggle with what they say is frack-tainted water and a protracted legal battle against Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas.

This week, the last two Dimock family reached legal settlements with Cabot.  Here’s a look back at what has changed — and what hasn’t — in Dimock.

Where is Dimock? It’s a township northwest of Scranton, in Susquehanna County. Population about 1,500.

What happened there? In late 2008, Cabot Oil & Gas began drilling natural gas wells in Dimock using a process called hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Around the same time, residents began having issues with their drinking water. On Jan. 1, 2009 — Happy New Year — the backyard well of Norma Fiorentino blew up.

What happened next? Shortly thereafter, 15 families in Dimock filed a federal lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas. The state of Pennsylvania fined Cabot $120,000 for “methane migration” incidents — a fancy term for gas leaks — and told the company that it had to make sure clean water was delivered to Dimock residents. Cabot was also ordered cease drilling. Cabot stopped its water deliveries in 2011, per an agreement with the state, and resumed drilling in the area that fall. Water testing continued and a 2016 report found the water in 2012 was terrible, contaminated with arsenic and possibly toxic levels of various metals.

How did neighbors react? The issue of fracking — especially after it got picked up in national political movements — pitted neighbor against neighbor and town against town in places like Dimock.  “It’s really made some bitter enemies,” said James C. Grimsley, a retired plumber, said in 2012.

What about the lawsuit? Thirteen families settled with Cabot in 2012. The Ely and Hubert families held out. In March 2016, a jury awarded the family of Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely $2.5 million. The family of Victoria Hubert was awarded $1.49 million.

So the waiting paid off big-time? Not really. In March 2017, federal judge Martin C. Carlson set aside the jury verdict, saying the evidence did not support it. [Read the judge’s ruling here.] That left the parties to enter a retrial or a settlement. The deal reached this week has so far remained confidential. Scott Ely isn’t talking. But his neighbor Pat Farnelli told NPR’s StateImpact that 10 years after she first signed a lease with Cabot, her well water is still undrinkable. The Farnellis haul water every week from a spring in nearby Montrose.

So is it over now? Nope. Many water problems remain, and in August, Cabot filed a $5 million suit against Dimock resident Ray Kemble and his lawyers, arguing that they tried to extort Cabot through a frivolous lawsuit.

There were movies about this?  Dimock was featured in the anti-fracking movie Gasland by Josh Fox, which spurred the pro-fracking movie FrackNation, directed by Phelim McAleer, Magdalena Segieda and Ann McElhinney.