ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania environmental regulators on Thursday banned an energy company from drilling in the state until it plugs three natural gas wells believed to have contaminated the drinking water supplies of 14 homes.
The Department of Environmental Protection said Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has failed to abide by the terms of a November 2009 agreement to clean up the contamination in Dimock Township in northeastern Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County, where residents say their wells have been polluted by methane gas and other contaminants.
DEP said Cabot has already paid a $240,000 fine and must pay $30,000 per month beginning in May until the company meets its obligations.
A Cabot spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday. The company has denied it polluted residents' wells, saying the high levels of methane detected in them might be natural.
Residents have described an ordeal that began shortly after Cabot started drilling near their homes, saying the water that came out of their faucets suddenly became cloudy and discolored, and smelled and tasted foul. A resident's well exploded on New Year's Day 2009, prompting a state investigation that found Cabot had allowed combustible gas to escape into the region's groundwater supplies.
More than a dozen families have filed a federal lawsuit against Cabot, asking for an environmental cleanup, medical monitoring and damages in excess of $75,000 each.
Cabot is among a slew of exploration companies that are drilling in the Marcellus shale, a deep layer of rock that experts say holds vast stores of largely untapped natural gas. The company began approaching homeowners in Dimock in 2006 and has drilled dozens of wells within a 9-square-mile tract of land in the township.
Pennsylvania regulators have repeatedly penalized the company.
Last September, the DEP temporarily banned Cabot from using a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," following three chemical spills at a single well site in Dimock.
Then, in November, the agency signed a consent decree with Cabot in which the company agreed to pay a $120,000 fine, take steps to improve its drilling operations, and restore or replace the affected water supplies in Dimock.
But the DEP said the company failed to meet a March 31 deadline to fix defective casings on three wells, and that gas continues to pollute groundwater. Regulators said they recently identified five additional defective gas wells drilled by the company and might require the company to plug them, too, unless it fixes them.
"Cabot had every opportunity to correct these violations, but failed to do so. Instead, it chose to ignore its responsibility to safeguard the citizens of this community and to protect the natural resources there," Environmental Secretary John Hanger said in a statement.
Hanger said regulators will suspend their review of Cabot's pending drilling applications statewide until the situation in Dimock is resolved.