Summer is here. Gas prices remain high. For many, visions of summer vacations abroad have materialized into the reality of staying closer to home. Weekend jaunts in the country have become a popular option, and the Endless Mountains appear a satisfying destination for a family on a tight budget.
Traveling north along windy country roads, we yearn for the glorious green, lush landscapes, fields of corn and wheat, and grazing cattle. As the miles pass, however, the roads most traveled become riddled with potholes and rubble and suddenly become congested with dozens of tanker trucks running in both directions.
Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. If we’re in Susquehanna County, we’re in gas country.
Victoria Switzer sees herself as an accidental activist. The recently retired teacher had high hopes of living her dream. After all, she married her soulmate, Jim, a few years ago. Both retired teachers, the couple found its little piece of heaven– 7.2 acres, five of which is virgin hemlock trees with a crystal clear creek rambling nearby. An old trailer on the property served as home while the Switzers built their dream house. Construction was accomplished in stages, with the choice of Pennsylvania hemlock for the exterior.
“We were going to use our own trees, but we didn’t want to disrupt this beautiful backdrop,” Victoria gestured.
In 2006, there was a knock on her door and, according to Victoria, nothing has been the same since. Landmen from Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas Company swarmed into the area, waving money under the unsuspecting noses of Victoria and her neighbors, in exchange for leasing their land in the off chance that they might need to build one exploratory well somewhere in the vicinity. The Switzers and their neighbors signed.
“We were told that the gas activity here would be minimal,” she said. “No one knew any better; and we never had the benefit of an informational meeting. “
Business in Dimock consisted primarily of stone quarries, farming, and timbering; the economy was slipping and there were no jobs. Cabot offered property owners as much as $6,000 per acre to lease their land.
By 2008 there were 23 wells, and the Switzers had eight new neighbors (wells), one of which was drilled 710 feet from their water well.
“We should have received notification if it was less than 1,000 feet, and our water should have been tested, but Cabot denied the need for testing,” she said. “Their water man told me, “You’re worrying too much.”
“There are presently more than 60 wells within nine miles and there is nothing in the books for spacing or density,” she added. “It’s a given that, if you drilled water wells in the same density, the water levels would be affected. So, the same goes for faulty gas wells.”
Victoria also explained that all gas wells have a natural drainage to creeks and streams, and some have culverts.
“If anything goes wrong, it will drain into the watershed and aquifer,” she said.
By the fall of 2010, the Switzers’ and their neighbors’ water supplies reflected dangerously high levels of methane. Incidents occurred on a near regular basis and a neighbor s well exploded, contaminating 19 wells. The DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and PennVest proposed an $11.8 million, 12.5-mile water line from Montrose Lake to Dimock; and the DEP planned to sue Cabot for the money. Cabot retaliated and a group of citizens and businesses, known as Enough Already, vehemently opposed the line based on the premise that many taxpayers would be penalized for the benefit of a few, driving away the gas companies that brought them money and jobs. They were effective in their mission, and plans for the water line were retracted.
“If someone came to your door starving, you would feed them; we have no water, yet no one is willing to help us,” Victoria said. “All our hotels are filled with gas guys, so of course the businesses here were against the water line. They were ‘Cabotized.’”
Disheartened over withdrawal of the proposed water line, Victoria formed a small group that began addressing issues in newspapers and writing educational editorials. Trying to do it all herself, she needed help. Well-spoken, Victoria worked tirelessly to bring Dimock’s plight to the public, local government officials, state legislators, and even a nearby neighbor, former U.S. Congressman Chris Carney. With few exceptions, Victoria’s appeal fell on deaf ears.
Living The Dream
Last Christmas, the Switzers celebrated their first Christmas in their new home, surrounded by family and friends, and their first Christmas tree.
“I was so excited about the holidays,” Victoria said, with a smile. “I decided to put it all aside. The family was all together and that’s what I focused on.”
As the New Year approached, Cabot offered a $4.1 million settlement to the 19 families affected by the methane contamination– to receive an amount equal to twice the value of their homes, with a minimum payment of $50,000.
Switzers’ home and land were appraised at $80,000, and Cabot offered them a check for $162,000 and informed them that their water would be cut off. Upon acceptance, however, terms of the agreement would demand current litigation against Cabot be dropped.
“We decided to not to accept the check,” she explained. “They will stop providing water regardless, so therefore we will never drink or cook with Dimock water again, even if we have a water system on our home.”
Today, Victoria faces the inevitability of her neighbors relocating, checks in hand, in search of greener pastures. Meanwhile, the couple will continue to live its dream, although it will do so without clean water. The Switzers will search for the best possible water treatment system for showering and laundry, but will purchase bottled water for drinking, cooking, and their animals and will use rain barrels and continue to test their water.
“There is nothing left for me to do for Dimock,” she said. “They want wells. They want Cabot. They want their money. How many communities, homes, and families will be sacrificed before there is a realization that the scales have been tipped the other way?”
“I will live my life with joy. We are motivated to stay,” Victoria said. “You can’t be a farmer in the middle of a gas field. They can’t co-exist. The bucolic vision we all have of cows grazing in the fields is a fallacy.”