A $12 million public water line is the only solution for contamination in Dimock Twp. water wells because there is "no guarantee" that methane from faulty natural gas wells will stop seeping into the aquifer, Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator said on Friday.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said that while work by Texas-based driller Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. to stop the gas migration has caused "some decline" in the gas, methane is still traveling from Cabot wells to residential drinking water in Susquehanna County.

Hanger made the comments in response to a press release distributed by Cabot on Friday - the third public appeal the company has made this week denying it caused the contamination and berating the department for choosing to adopt what it called a "costly, unnecessary solution" for elevated levels of methane in water supplies that feed 18 Dimock homes.

The statement followed Hanger's announcement Thursday that the state would pay to install 12.5 miles of pipe from the public water system in Montrose then sue Cabot, if necessary, to recover the costs of building and maintaining the line.

Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges said in the statement that the company "wants to help solve this problem," which he defined as pre-existing methane in the area's water.

"Our difference with the PaDEP is that the solution to methane in water has been venting water wells and putting them on water treatment devices, which cleans up the water quickly," he said.

Hanger vigorously denied that Cabot's proposals are viable long-term solutions because methane continues to leak from Cabot wells.

"Every other option, in fact, might not work, at least (not) permanently," he said. "It may work for a little bit of time, or quite a long time, but not necessarily forever."

Cabot said Friday that it has drilled a new water well at one of the 18 affected households and it is producing clean water, but Hanger said even that is no proof of a permanent fix.

Families suing Cabot over the contamination initially proposed that the department force the company to drill centralized wells and pipe fresh water to their homes before Hanger told them a public water line was "the only way to guarantee a permanent safe drinking water supply."

"If you drill another well, there's no guarantee whatsoever right now, given that we still have gas migrating through the geology, that that well won't become contaminated at some point," Hanger said on Friday.

Hanger's comments amounted to his bleakest assessment yet by the state of the aquifer that feeds the Dimock homes - four more of which were determined by the state in September to be impacted by methane from Cabot's extensive Marcellus Shale drilling in the township.

Methane migration from natural gas wells is not a new problem, nor is it isolated to Dimock. When the DEP first drafted strengthened casing and cementing regulations for gas wells last fall, it summarized a decade of catastrophic scenarios involving stray gas from new or abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, including six explosions that killed four people, 20 evacuations, and at least 60 contaminated water wells.

Last month, DEP directed Chesapeake Energy Corp. to evaluate 171 of its Marcellus Shale gas wells after methane traced to some of the company's Bradford County wells leaked into residential water supplies and caused bubbling in the Susquehanna River.

But Hanger said the new regulations, which the Environmental Quality Board will consider on Oct. 12, should reduce the incidence of problems.

"Any decently drilled well that meets our (new) standards should not have had these problems," he said.

Clearly exasperated by Cabot's insistence that the methane in the residents' water is naturally occurring, Hanger also emphasized on Friday the strength of the department's evidence that Cabot wells are causing the trouble in Dimock. The proof includes visible bubbling at several of the wellheads, indications of poor cement around steel casing meant to protect the aquifer, isotopic analysis to determine the provenance of the gas and "very very high" pressure readings in the wells, he said.

"Any responsible company would have immediately understood that they had a very significant problem on their hands," he said. "Cabot just wants to ignore all that."

Contact the writer: llegere@timesshamrock.com