Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lawsuit could be the 1st to prove link between "fracking" and water contamination--and set a precedent for future lawsuits to come

PA lawsuit says drilling polluted water
Mon Nov 9, 2009 9:37am EST
By Jon Hurdle [excerpts below; click title for full text]

AVELLA, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A Pennsylvania landowner is suing an energy company for polluting his soil and water in an attempt to link a natural gas drilling technique with environmental contamination. George Zimmermann, the owner of 480 acres in Washington County, southwest Pennsylvania, says Atlas Energy Inc. ruined his land with toxic chemicals used in or released there by hydraulic fracturing.  Water tests at three locations by gas wells on Zimmermann's property -- one is 1,500 feet from his home -- found seven potentially carcinogenic chemicals above "screening levels" set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as warranting further investigation.

Jay Hammond, general counsel for Atlas, said Zimmermann's claims are "completely erroneous" and that the company is in compliance with Pennsylvania's gas-drilling regulations. Hammond said Atlas will "vigorously" defend itself in court and declined further comment.  But Zimmermann says he has evidence that chemicals used by Atlas contaminated his land.  "There are substances that can't be made by nature and that's what's in the ground," he told Reuters during an interview in his 12,000-square-foot house on a remote hilltop....  If Zimmermann wins his case, it would be the first in America to prove that hydraulic fracturing causes water contamination.

Baseline tests on Zimmermann's water a year before drilling began were "perfect," he said. In June, water tests found arsenic at 2,600 times acceptable levels, benzene at 44 times above limits and naphthalene five times the federal standard.  Soil samples detected mercury and selenium above official limits, as well as ethylbenzene, a chemical used in drilling, and trichloroethene, a naturally occurring but toxic chemical that can be brought to the surface by gas drilling....  Companies are not required to disclose the composition of the fluid because of an exemption to a federal clean water law granted to the oil and gas industry in 2005.

Many local residents have been deterred from fighting the gas companies by the expense of legal action and water testing. Zimmermann says he has spent about $15,000 on water tests and will spend whatever it takes to prove his case.  Rural residents who live near gas drilling say their water has become discolored, foul-smelling, or even flammable because methane from disturbed gas deposits has migrated into water wells.

Farmers in southwest Pennsylvania blame cattle deaths and mutations on local fracking. Other complaints attributed to tainted water include children's sickness, skin rashes and neurological disorders.

The industry says the chemicals used in fracking are injected through layers of steel and concrete thousands of feet below aquifers, and so pose no threat to drinking water. Spokesman argue there has never been a documented case of water contamination as a result of fracking.

On Zimmermann's property, the presence of water and soil contaminants that exceed EPA screening levels risks wider pollution of drinking water supply, wrote Cleason Smith, a consultant with Hydrosystems Management, which tested the soil and water, in a letter explaining the test results.  Atlas rejected Smith's report, saying in court documents that the findings were inadmissible....

Zimmermann's suit says his land has become "virtually valueless" because it is permanently contaminated with toxic chemicals as a result of the 10 wells that Atlas has drilled.  The suit accuses Atlas -- which is able to drill on the land because it acquired the mineral rights from a previous owner -- of negligence. It is seeking an injunction against further drilling, and unspecified financial damages.

With a wife, an eight-year-old son and eight-month-old twins, Zimmermann, 66, worries about air and water quality.  He said he has invested about $11 million in the estate, which includes a winery and an heirloom-tomato business, but he now just wants to walk away because he believes it has been ruined by gas drilling.  He rates his chances of selling the property as "slim to none" in light of the proven water contamination.

"I don't want to live here any more," Zimmermann said. "I'm afraid of the chemicals."

(Editing by Mark Egan and Philip Barbara)
© Thomson Reuters 2009. All rights reserved.

Residents in Dimock, PA sue Cabot Oil & Gas Corps over gas drilling

Pennsylvania residents sue over gas drilling.  

By Jon Hurdle

DIMOCK, Pennsylvania, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Residents of a small rural Pennsylvania town sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp (COG.N: Quote, Profile,Research, Stock Buzz) on Friday, claiming the company's natural-gas drilling has contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals, caused sickness and reduced their property values. The lawsuit accuses the company of violating state environmental laws by allowing drilling chemicals to escape from gas wells, where they are used in a technique called hydraulic fracturing.

A Cabot spokesman said the company had not had time to study the lawsuit in detail but said Cabot was in full compliance with Pennsylvania's environmental laws and "disappointed" by the lawsuit. "We don't see merit in these claims," Cabot spokesman Ken Komoroski said. The company, like others in the industry, has argued that its drilling processes are safe because chemicals are heavily diluted and are injected into the ground through layers of steel and concrete thousands of feet below the aquifers that are used for drinking water. The industry says there has never been a documented case of ground water contamination because of hydraulic fracturing. The case is one of the first to confront the industry over the technique, which critics claim pollutes aquifers with chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses.

Cabot's drilling allowed methane to escape into private water wells and in two cases caused wellhead explosions due to a gas build-up, the 15 families in the lawsuit claim. Pat Farnelli, 46, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told reporters on Friday that some of her eight children suffered stomach cramps after drinking water from the family's well, which is a few hundred yards from a gas well. She ruled out water-borne bacteria because boiling the water didn't help.

The suit is the culmination of complaints by residents of the northeastern Pennsylvania community where Cabot has drilled dozens of gas wells in its efforts to develop the Marcellus Shale, a massive gas formation that underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states. "These releases, spills and discharges caused the plaintiffs and their property to be exposed to such hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes," said the complaint. The complaint says residents have suffered neurological, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms from exposure to tainted water. They also say they have had blood test results consistent with exposure to heavy metals.

Victoria Switzer, a plaintiff who lives about a mile from Carter's home, said she had joined the lawsuit because she had failed to get satisfaction from the state Department of Environmental Protection or her elected representatives. "Lawyers were the last thing I wanted," she said. "We are not greedy people, we just want some justice." The lawsuit accuses Cabot of negligence and says it has failed to restore residential water supplies disrupted by gas drilling. It seeks a permanent injunction to stop the drilling processes that are blamed for the contamination, as well as unspecified compensatory damages.

Residents of many gas-drilling areas in the United States say the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are contaminating ground water. However, they have been unable to prove that, in part because energy companies are not required to disclose the composition of their drilling fluids.

Gas deposits such as the Marcellus Shale offer the United States an opportunity to reduce dependence on overseas oil imports and reduce carbon emissions, advocates say. But development could slow if fracturing is shown to be environmentally damaging. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Michelle Nichols, Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky)

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