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Gas driller pleads no contest to polluting town’s water

MONTROSE, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s most active gas driller pleaded no contest Tuesday to criminal charges, capping 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 crossroads of Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania said their aquifer was ruined and Houston-based Coterra Energy failed to make it right. That led to one of the most prominent pollution cases ever to emerge from the U.S. drilling and fracking boom.

Under a plea deal entered in nearby Susquehanna County Court, Coterra agreed to pay $16.29 million to connect the residents’ homes to a clean source of water and pay their water bills for the next 75 years.

Coterra’s corporate predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., was charged in June 2020 with 15 criminal counts, most of them felonies, after a grand jury investigation found the company drilled faulty gas wells that leaked flammable methane into residential water supplies in Dimock and surrounding communities.

The grand jury blasted what it called Cabot’s “long-term indifference to the damage it caused to the environment and citizens of Susquehanna County.” Many residents have continued to avoid using their well water, using bottled water, bulk water purchased commercially, and even water drawn from creeks and artesian wells instead.

After being charged, the company had denied any suggestion that it “acted with indifference toward the community where we live and operate.” Cabot, which merged with Denver-based Cimarex Energy Co. to form Coterra, has long maintained the gas in residents’ water was naturally occurring.

Coterra pleaded no contest to a charge of prohibition against discharge of industrial wastes under the state’s Clean Streams Law.

The battle over Dimock’s water woes was featured in the Emmy-winning 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which showed residents lighting their tap water on fire.

Residents were informed of the plea deal last week. Pennsylvania American Water has said it 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 piping it to about 20 homes in Dimock.

The criminal case has not slowed Coterra’s business. It is the leading shale gas driller in the nation’s No. 2 natural gas-producing state.