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PA town in gas-drilling debate gets new water main

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania town that has become symbolic in the debate over the safety of the natural gas drilling process known as fracking will get a new public water supply to replace wells contaminated by methane.

Dimock, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia, will receive an $11.8 million, 5.5-mile (9-km) water main to serve at least 18 homes whose water has been tainted by faulty gas wells operated by Cabot Oil & Gas, state officials said on Thursday.

The town has been at the center of a national debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are blasted into rock deep below the surface to fracture shale and unlock trapped gas.

The state will pay for the system and attempt to recover the costs from Cabot, which disputes the state's claim that the company was responsible.

"The problems in Dimock were caused by Cabot's failure to construct their natural gas wells properly, and we are holding them responsible for the damage caused by these wells," John Hanger, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said in a statement.

Hanger fined Cabot $240,000 for faulty well construction in April.

Residents of Dimock say their water is foul-tasting, cloudy and even flammable because of the many local gas wells sunk into the Marcellus Shale, one of America's biggest natural gas fields.

Some of its residents are suing Cabot, saying their health and property prices have suffered from the drilling.

The company said in a statement: "Despite the fact that the company has presented overwhelming scientific evidence and historical documentation to the Pennsylvania DEP proving it is not responsible for methane gas migration to local water wells, the Pennsylvania DEP has chosen to ignore such evidence, preferring instead to base unprecedented and costly mandates on biased and unscientific opinions and accounts."

(Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara)