Sunday, September 26, 2010

What Really Happened in Dimock, PA?

[I mean, sure, okay, you can choose to believe The Truth is Out There… somewhere… maybe…  eventually...  But, to me, at the rate we’re going, it looks like only selected versions of that truth will ever get told by modern media, or ever get heard by us media consumers.] 
Here’s the deal:  Reporter Laura Legere with the Times-Shamrock newspaper chain in northeastern Pennsylvania (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Pottsville, Shamokin, and Towanda) recently rolled out a new chapter in an ongoing saga which may as well be entitled, “What Really Happened in Dimock, PA?”  She reported a story, released by her company’s print and online outlets on 9-16-2010 and 9-17-2010, headlined:  “Private Lab Finds Toxic Chemicals in Dimock Water.”

Just for background recap purposes, Dimock Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, is the otherwise under-recognized rural place where Marcellus shale driller Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. of Houston, Texas, stands publicly accused of messing up the water in 14 or more residential wells situated near a grouping of its own natural gas wells.

Depending on who (or what) you believe (or who or what you wanna believe), the Dimock water issue is either: 1) an unfortunate industrial mishap, though preventable in the future, as industry, supervised by government regulators, perfects the process of drilling and hydraulically fracturing deep shale for the purpose of producing natural gas; or 2) a grave environmental catastrophe, proving once and for all that this shale gas drilling and fracking thing is a danger to domestic water supplies, and that industry and government won’t ever be able to get it right, even if they’re allowed to keep trying.

Once again, depending on your belief system, blame for the Dimock water situation can be traced to either:  1) Natural gas migration allowed by the technological failure of steel pipe and cement casing running through the aquifer, possibly also along with humans having over-pressurized that pipe; or 2) Any number of possible above-ground or below-ground impact pathways for water contamination, all caused by Cabot’s drilling or spilling or hydraulic fracturing, or some combination of any of these events.

In short, Dimock, PA, has become the Northeast U.S. Poster Child for the Dangers of Hydro-Fracking

Anti-drilling people select for any information that seems to dramatize and heighten the affected residents’ sorry situation (and industry’s apparent guilt for having caused that situation).  Pro-drilling people, on the other hand, select for any information that seems to indicate it’s not so bad as it might seem, and that Cabot and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should eventually be able to get everybody’s water permanently fixed (and to stop the flood of bad press, already).

But now here we are at a point in time a full year and a half after the original gas migration event first came to light (January 2009).  And there are still new details to be unearthed and publicized, as Legere has shown.  Here it is:  There are chemicals, not just methane, in people’s water, in Dimock, PA.

Reading closely, we find that a private consultant, who earlier did pre-drilling water tests paid for by Cabot, is now working for the litigating homeowners.  In Spring and Summer 2010, this consultant found “positive test results” for certain toxic chemicals — hydrocarbons such as ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylene, and antifreezes such as ethylene glycol and propylene glycol — within basically the same set of domestic water wells that are already known to have suffered methane infiltration.

If you read this and follow-up articles really closely, you would also see that the elevated levels of hydrocarbons were found in “almost everybody” tested along Carter Road, while the elevated levels of the antifreezes were found in only one well — that of new anti-fracking crusader, Victoria Switzer.

Legere appears to have gotten the story by simply following up on a two-minute speech given by Switzer three days earlier, 9-13-2010, at one of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s frack study hearings in Binghamton, NY — a speech that would have been given in full view of presumably scores of media representatives.

Contacting the private engineering firm hired by the homeowners to oversee the follow-up water testing, Legere got a lot of new, alarming detail, and some great quotes from the engineer in charge.  Down at the bottom of the story, she has a few feeble quotes from Cabot, in which a spokesman generally claimed all those chemicals were in the water beforehand, but which offered up little detail, and even less proof.  The story originally ran under this sort of headline:  “Private Lab Finds Toxic Chemicals in Dimock Water.”

How much circulation did this get?  Well, if you were to go out on Google right now, at the time of my writing here, 9-26-2010, and do an advanced web search for various unique phrases occurring within Legere’s story (and if you asked the search engine to not to skip over any similar pages), here are the number of web pages you would find which appear to carry Legere’s text, verbatim:
  • Searching for a phrase near the top of her story, such as "Reports of the positive test results first came Monday" — Google shows about 96 results.
  • From near the middle of the story, "A DEP specialist came to test the water three days later, she said, but by that time the foam was gone" — about 67 results.
  • Close to the bottom, "I double- and triple-checked everything to make sure the evidence is irrefutable” — about 67 results.
In other words, Legere’s original story has gotten picked up and pirated, here and there, but it didn’t really travel that far, at least not by Internet standards.  I don’t really have much of a frame of reference for this sort of thing, but I suppose this result makes a certain amount of sense — for a water contamination case affecting 14 households in a pretty rural area of Pennsylvania. 

But then what happened?  Well, here’s what happened.  Later in the day, on 9-16-2010, Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press re-researched and re-wrote Legere’s story, adding some additional details, and some additional context, and put it out on that wire service under this suggested headline:  “Fracking Chemicals in NE PA Water Wells.”

If you were to go out on Google right now, 9-26-2010, and do another advanced web search for Rubinkam’s words, like I explained above, asking Google to do the search with the repeat results included, here’s what you would find:
  • Searching for unique text from near the top of Rubinkam’s story, "Environmental engineer Daniel Farnham said Thursday" — Google tallies about 9,220 results.
  • From about the middle, "But Farnham said it's impossible to tell where the chemicals came from" — about 6,010 results.
  • From the bottom, "Your drinking water goes from clear and fine, to a week later being yellow-colored" — for some reason even more results, about 7,040.
Basically, within days, thousands of web pages!  I mean, let’s face it:  This story ran everywhere!

[Note that these are Google search results for all web pages.  I haven’t figured out how to accurately search just Google News, at least not a week or so after the fact.  I also haven’t figured out how to make the routinely overloaded Twitter, at this late date, do all the necessary work of reporting what sort of tweets were going on, soon thereafter, in connection with each of these various news articles.]

But, clearly, the Dimock story exploded at the hands of the AP, and the vast majority of media consumers out there would have gotten their version of the truth from this source.  Ultimately, though, how accurate was it?  And how true was it?  And what impression did it leave?

Well, at this point in time, in the story’s ongoing evolution, I would summarize the impression the average reader would get like this:  New things are still going badly wrong with the Dimock homeowners’ water, and Cabot’s nearby gas drilling (if not fracking directly) must be somehow to blame.

But then there was more.  A week later, on 9-22-2010, the original reporter Legere did a follow-up story headlined, “Cabot: Dimock Water Contaminated Before Drilling…”

As readers, we can’t really know for sure what triggered this second story.  But it appears to have stemmed from a demand for fairness from Cabot.  There is an internal reference to a press release from Cabot, which would have been issued on a Tuesday, translating into a date of 9-21-2010, a day earlier.  Reading between the lines, it looks like the Cabot PR organization, such as it is, finally got its act together a week or so later, and reacted to certain details in the original onslaught of new allegations against its mother corporation.

We learn, for instance, these sorts of things:
  1. Even though it’s kinda private information, Cabot has decided to release results from two residential water well tests undertaken back in 2008 (back when the samples were B.D. — Before Drilling).  These samples, originally drawn by the same consultant now working on behalf of the homeowners, showed traces of toluene and benzene in one well, and traces of surfactants in two wells.  (Except for toluene, these are not exactly the same kind of tests as the more recent results.  But it’s all that’s available for before-and-after comparison.)
  2. Cabot goes on record as asserting that you can’t blame its fracking for the hydrocarbons, because those chemicals aren’t constituents in any of the fracking fluids it has deployed in the area. (Left unspoken is the fact that those same chemicals pop up downstream of pretty much any uncontained diesel or gasoline spill, and that Cabot did, in fact, report surface diesel spills to the state of Pennsylvania.)
  3. Cabot points to a nearby auto repair shop, and says those sorts of hydrocarbons could be downstream from fuel spills at that location.  (Cabot didn’t appear to make the same allegation as to glycols, even though those chemicals presumably could be downstream from any automotive coolant spills.)
  4. Cabot acknowledges that the glycols found are, in fact, used in its frack fluid, but it says the last fracking it did in the area was November 2009, and it asserts furthermore that glycols break down so quickly, there must be a more recent source for the Switzer well lab results from Spring and Summer 2010.  (How true that is — sorry, I just can’t tell you, with any authority.)
But what would the average reader think now?  Well, I would guess the average reader would still think things are going pretty badly wrong with the Dimock homeowners’ water, but that there might be more complexity to the underlying causes of this situation than originally appeared.  (For instance, just for starters, is it possible that the acknowledged methane infiltration jostled the water in the aquifer, and helped to move around pre-existing contamination?  Just asking…)

Getting to the bigger point, however, let me ask this:  How many average readers out there would have seen any of this follow-up complexity?  Tromping back to Google, I get these numbers:
  • Searching for some text from near the top of Legere’s second story, "Tests of two private water wells in Dimock" — Google shows about 48 results.
  • From the middle, "Cabot spokesman George Stark said on Tuesday" — 6 results.
  • From the bottom, “Cabot has not hydraulically fractured wells in the Carter Road area since November 2009” — 3 results.
And where does the Associated Press stand on reporting any of these additional details?  Ummm, sorry!  Nothing to report!

Here are a couple thoughts on all of this:

On any issue, the whole story often fails to get completely told during the first go-around.  This is because most government agencies, and most corporations, are not fully staffed, and not fully equipped, for dealing with the media, on the media’s own time table.  In this case, for instance, that time table appears to allow for one phone call, requesting comment, possibly close to the last minute of the deadline for the running of the story.

In the end, unfortunately, this situation works to significantly mislead the vast majority of media consumers.  It is not a murder trial, where both sides supposedly get equal time.  Instead, most of us are just going to see that first well-publicized splash, and very few of us are even going to notice the follow-up ripples and counter-currents a week or so later.

Nextly, given the economic importance of northeastern shale gas, and given the environmental importance of getting it right, I would say this:  There is probably no way of moving forward politically on this issue without some branch of state or federal government stepping in to make arrangements for a Full-On Independent Investigation, by actual bona fide experts, aimed at answering the question, “What the hell really happened in Dimock, PA, anyway?” 

On a certain level, I think Dimock has become the Pennsylvania version of the Kennedy Assassination in Dallas, Texas, or the UFO situation at Area 51 in Roswell, Nevada.  We just don't know what's true, anymore.  And that’s just not a good thing, running forward.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

After the EPA Hearings in Binghamton, NY

I was only able to make it to the last session, which ran for four-plus hours onwards from 6 p.m., Wednesday night, Sept. 15.

But I read every word of the Binghamton Press' coverage — some in print, and the rest online.

All in all, I'm going to have to say (somewhat reluctantly) that I thought the Gannett organization did a helluva job in covering these thoroughly contentious hearings (which, of course, were scheduled, cancelled, moved, cancelled, and re-scheduled, over the last month or so, right in its own backyard).

It's true that — contrary to all the pre-fight trash talk, and some jitteriness from officialdom — the street drama failed to erupt into a re-staging of the Boston Massacre.  But it was still an important, landmark event, occurring right in the heart of what turns out to be, by geological fate, the shale gas zone.

In a sense, the Binghamton
Press essentially acted as a host for these meetings.  They put up a live, intermittently flaky feed on the Internet (Jeff Platsky).  They planted its new main Marcellus shale reporter (Jon Campbell) at the press table right up front for all 16-plus hours of ceaseless public commenting.  They had extra reporters and photographers — inside, outside, all around town — filling up generous amounts of daily space on the printed page.  And, on top of their usual web-based coverage, they even experimented a bit more with blogging, micro-blogging, community tweeting, and all that sort of young-person's thing.

Plus, let's not forget the coverage, which I think was fair, accurate, balanced, and pretty complete, too, truly.  I know people will always complain one way or another about their hometown paper.  And I know — over the last two-plus years, at the ever-wringing hands of former reporter Tom Wilber — the Binghamton Press has definitely earned a reputation for anti-drilling crusading on the Marcellus shale issue. 

But I think they have finally reached a certain level of clear-minded, whole-context sophistication.