If you have ever seen the film Psycho, you understand vulnerability in the shower. Imagine waking up in the morning, still groggy from last night’s sleep, you waddle over to the shower, remove your clothes and turn on the faucet. Suddenly, an explosion!
Instead of water, methane pours out from the showerhead and instantaneously ignites. It was this potential for the spontaneous combustion of showerheads, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) warned about to residents of Dimock, PA. Natural gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas Co. (Cabot) began in Dimock, Pa in the late summer/early fall of 2008. By winter, the community started reporting water quality problems. Cabot and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) investigated and found dangerous levels of highly flammable methane.
“An Immediate Risk of Explosion”
Cabot and DEP agreed to temporarily stop drilling while Cabot negotiated water treatment options with affected landowners. Satisfied that Cabot had made the community whole, DEP let Cabot off the hook, releasing them from their obligations to Dimock residents in November of 2011. Drilling resumed almost right away. Unfortunately, immediately afterward, Dimock residents again observed visual changes in their water quality: turbidity and color change.
Rather than accept DEP’s conclusions, the community asked ATSDR for their health assessment. ATSDR reviewed the same data DEP gathered. They also found methane. In fact, they said there’s “ An immediate risk of explosion or fire exists for five residences (methane >28 mg/L)”
See No Evil Regulation
In addition to methane, ATSDR found 13 other chemicals of concern including arsenic, cadmium, and lead. Why did DEP report finding dissolved methane, but not arsenic etc.? You cannot find when you do not look. ATSDR immediately recommended residents not use their well water until further assessment could provide a better understanding of exposures in the Dimock area. DEP did the opposite; though they did require Cabot to provide some bottled water for a time.
Not only does the ATSDR report vindicate the people of Dimock, many of whom still cannot drink their own water, but this case also illustrates how poorly some environmental regulations and regulators answer public health questions. ATSDR is not an environmental regulator. They belong to the Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR approaches investigations asking whether there's a health risk, not whether a regulatory threshold was reached. Their methodology and expertise reflects an overall different mission- one where conservative assumptions and a sense of precaution guides them to default toward protecting, rather than exposing, people.
Too Much of a Bad Thing
For example, in 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also gathered data from Dimock. During sampling, EPA detected elevated levels of lithium, a flammable element that can lead to lung complications. But EPA had no idea what concentration levels of lithium posed a public health risk. Instead, they turned to ATSDR. Environmental regulators need not become public health experts. Yet, our regulations and protections should do more to catch up to the real public health risks of fracking. In the meantime, for the sake of health and the environment (not to mention shower safety), no more drilling in Dimock.