Dimock, the myth that won’t die for fractivists, enjoyed a brief resuscitation this week when a reporter who’s written more words on the subject than perhaps any other, tried in vain to breathe some new life into the patient.
Shakespeare’s famous play Much Ado About Nothing is a tale of how gossip, rumor and the overhearing of conversations always leads us to the wrong conclusions. Dimock, Pennsylvania, to the chagrin of those who live there and know the truth, has been the source of a great deal of this and, too often, it has been spread with the help of the media, particularly the Scranton Times-Tribune.
Laura Legere, a former reporter at the paper, and now a freelance writer, wrote dozens and dozens of stories about Dimock. She seems determined, even now, following all the studies and testing finding there wasn’t much to it all, to keep the myth alive with whatever gossip she is able to recirculate. Legere is a perfectly cordial individual, polite to a fault and a good researcher, but somehow nearly always manages to deliver an anti-gas spin, often by selectively presenting facts guaranteed to raise doubts without presenting the facts or context that would resolve those doubts. Her latest piece is no exception.
Legere’s umpteenth report on Dimock appears on the like-minded State Impact website, which also never found a fact that didn’t somehow directly or indirectly incriminate the gas industry. It regards the sale of the former property of Craig and Julie Saunter to their neighbors. We haven’t heard much from Craig and Julie since they inadvertently claimed starring roles in FrackNation by claiming their well was a source of weapons grade uranium and threatening to sic the NRDC on Phelim McAleer. Legere has now given their notoriety a new lease on life by reporting their infamous property, now owned by a subsidiary of Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, is being sold to neighboring landowners for $4,000 with the stipulation no new home is built on the property. The Sautner’s home has been demolished.
The article tries to seemingly make a case something is wrong with this situation while, of course, regurgitating old rhetoric about Dimock, Cabot and the Sautner’s. Legere grasps desperately at the facts in an attempt to re-instigate controversy but there’s not much there. It is, after all, nothing more than a private real estate transaction. Think of the last time the sale of a 3.6 acre parcel to a neighbor received this much attention. It just doesn’t happen because, well, it’s not news, but Legere gives it all an ominous tone, with a not so subtle suggestion the owners were somehow forced to leave:
No one will ever live at 1101 Carter Road in Dimock again.
The 3.6-acre property is one of 18 in the Susquehanna County village where state environmental regulators in 2009 traced methane contamination in the water supplies back to faulty natural gas wells drilled by Cabot Oil and Gas Corp.
Since Laura failed to provide any context regarding this transaction that couldn’t be interpreted negatively against the gas industry and turned on Dimock, let’s look a little more deeply at the facts and why this property would be worth only $4,000 today.
Let’s begin with the quality of the water supply, which Legere implies was problematic due to methane. We might also ask what happened to the weapons grade uranium, of course, but let’s stick to more serious matters. The mere fact we’re now back to talking methane as the issue and not myriad other things listed on that stupid billboard of a couple of years ago is a testament to the work of the EPA. Their mission was purely political but hats off to the professionals who actually did the work and found there was no danger in drinking the water due to any of those things, including whatever methane was there.
The EPA did find something, however, and it’s all on record here, in a transcript of the EPA’s presentation of their findings to the Sautners, who were none too pleased to learn their water was safe except for one thing that had occurred “early on.” Here’s the discussion beginning at 7:07 in the video (leaving out various Sautner outbursts of vulgarity):
Trish Taylor (EPA): “This is a memo from [our toxicologist] saying that she didn’t see any health risks.”
Craig Sautner: “So, in other words, I’m allowed to drink this water and it’s not going to cause me any harm?”
Trish (EPA): “Right.”
Rich (EPA): “I’ve looked at your historical data–all the way back to 2008–and other than some bacteria that seemed to be somewhat persistent early on we didn’t see anything in there that raised any alarms in our eyes.”
Rich (EPA): “I’ve seen your water. I’ve tasted your water actually and it didn’t taste unusual. Actually compared to the water I was drinking at the hotel it didn’t have all the chlorine.
The EPA later tells the Sautners “methane is not a health concern” and, we might add, is an issue easily corrected by venting and/or the water treatment systems Cabot offered the Sautners and their neighbors but which only the latter accepted. Notice the reference to bacteria, though. What this about? Well, it’s not hard to guess. The Sautner home was, according to the Susquehanna County Soil Survey, built on a soil known as Mardin Flaggy Silt Loam with 8-15% slope, which is described as having a seasonal high water table within 18″ to 30″ of the surface (p. 29) and having “severe” limitations for on-site sewage disposal (p. 44). The Sautners apparently had a malfunctioning sewage function and the small lot combined with the slope involved would make it difficult to relocate. This alone was a good reason for Cabot to demolish the home and sell the property.
The reader might ask why Cabot purchased it, then, but that was a matter of settling with the Sautners and ending a lawsuit. The cost was not significantly different than what Cabot had offered from the very beginning; twice the assessed value of the home plus a water treatment system, an offer their neighbors took and with which they were very satisfied. Moreover, while the presence of natural methane migration in this area has been well known for decades, the lack of adequate pre-drilling baseline testing made it difficult to demonstrate this. A settlement was deemed prudent under the circumstances and the value of the Sautner property added little to the deal because Cabot had already offered much the same without getting it.
Cabot did acquire added value in saved royalty payments, though. The property now being sold to the neighbors is severed of its mineral rights. This means Cabot will not be paying royalties on the 3.6 acre parcel. The new owner will not be able to benefit financially from any natural gas production in the general area. Legere mentions this fact but does little to frame the context. For those who don’t know, the parting of mineral rights from surface rights is completely legal in Pennsylvania, and has been for many years; meaning Cabot has made what can only be described as a good business decision.
Cabot has also established a permanent easement on the property. This easement will allow Cabot uninterrupted access to the water well currently on the property for ongoing testing purposes, a value to the company for purposes of continuous baseline testing. The new owner of the property will have to honor this easement and not block or hinder Cabot’s access, thus further restricting the usability of the land.
Given this easement, the fact the property is not suitable and restricted from being used as a homesite, and the financial incentive of Cabot to hold onto the mineral rights to the property, it only makes sense to sell it to a neighboring property owner interested in adding it to their own, especially when the property of the buyer already actually surrounds a large portion of the 3.6 acres up for sale. It’s worth adding that $4,000 (some $1,100 per acre) is a very fair price to both parties for a non-buildable lot with no mineral rights, the bulk of property value in this area being attributable to those two factors.
So, as one can readily see, there still isn’t much there. It’s just another Dimock story by a Dimock-obsessed writer who can’t let it go–much ado about nothing. It’s also much ado about nothing for another reason that probably will occur to most of you upon reflection and it is this: both parties to the transaction are going away happy, yet Legere and State Impact would have everyone believe otherwise. It’s sad, truly sad, when this the best journalism can do.