A monumental verdict yesterday holding Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. responsible for water contamination in Pennsylvania prompted jubilation from environmentalists and a promise from industry that it would challenge the decision.
The verdict concluded three weeks of trial at the U.S. District Court in Scranton and capped off nearly a decade of investigation and litigation over methane contamination in the northeastern Pennsylvania township of Dimock. The contamination has been linked to shoddy gas wells, not hydraulic fracturing, but has nevertheless become a cause célèbre of anti-fracking activists. The town’s plight was featured in the film "Gasland," widely credited with sparking national opposition to fracking.
The 10-person jury found that Cabot had been negligent in its drilling of shale wells near two families’ houses and was responsible for water contamination that created a nuisance for the two couples and their children. The verdict awarded $2.75 million to the Ely family and $1.49 million to the Hubert family for "inconvenience and discomfort" associated with the water contamination.
"This vindication of the suffering and damage is long-awaited and a tribute to the strength of the plaintiffs, their lawyers and the evidence," said B. Arrindell, director of the grass-roots anti-fracking group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (Greenwire, March 10).
Josh Fox, the filmmaker behind "Gasland," said he screamed with joy when he heard the decision.
"I hope that this opens the floodgates for fracking plaintiffs across the globe to be encouraged to not take a gag order, not take a settlement, stick to your guns and make an impact on the world," he told EnergyWire.
The Elys and Huberts were the last residents standing in a lawsuit that included more than 40 plaintiffs when it was filed in 2009. Most of the others reached a financial settlement with Cabot and another company, GasSearch Drilling Services Corp., in 2012 and agreed to dismiss all claims against the companies. GasSearch was dismissed from the case earlier this year.
The families’ claims against Cabot also became increasingly narrow as the case went on. Though the families first complained of health impacts from water contamination, the case focused only on impacts to their property. Earlier this week, the judge threw out the plaintiffs’ claim that Cabot’s drilling had decreased their property value, leaving the jury to decide only whether Cabot drilled the wells negligently and whether that action created a private nuisance for the families by contaminating their water (EnergyWire, March 8).
Cabot has repeatedly denied responsibility for the contamination, pointing to natural methane levels that have existed in the region’s groundwater for years. During the trial, Cabot’s team of lawyers tried to cast doubt on state Department of Environmental Protection samples that linked the contamination to poorly constructed gas wells and pointed out to the jury that another company, Chief Oil & Gas, operated a gas well near the Ely and Hubert properties.
In a statement after the verdict yesterday, Cabot vowed to ask Chief Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson to toss the verdict. The company says Leslie Lewis, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, intentionally deprived Cabot of a fair trial and that the jury disregarded scientific evidence in reaching its verdict.
"The verdict disregards overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations," spokesman George Stark said in a statement. "Cabot will be filing motions with the Court to set the verdict aside based upon lack of evidence as well as conduct of plaintiff’s counsel calculated to deprive Cabot of a fair trial."
The company said in its most recent annual report that it did not expect any adverse legal decisions to have a "material effect on the Company’s financial position, results of operations or cash flows."
Celebration, consternation and surprise
Fox said it’s time for Cabot to own up.
"Cabot and their advocates owe the world an apology right now," he said. "Not an apology for contaminating the water — we knew they did that — an apology for not being courageous enough, for not being human enough to admit their mistakes."
Critics said anti-fracking advocates are conflating the specific process of fracking with the broader process of gas production.
"The verdict does not change the facts as they relate to Dimock," Nicole Jacobs, Pennsylvania director for the industry group Energy In Depth, said in an email. "The trial had nothing to do with fracking as all parties involved agreed and the plaintiffs’ complaints still began before any drilling nearby occurred. Further, the EPA still concluded in 2012 that the water there was safe."
Fox said yesterday that that argument is based on semantics and dodges real problems that accompany development.
Celebrity anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo joined in the celebration of the verdict, urging the Obama administration to take further steps to protect against drilling impacts.
"It is also time for President Obama to let the the US Environmental Protection Agency do its job and investigate thousands of complaints across the country of drilling and fracking polluting drinking water supplies and harming the American people," he said in a statement. "This jury trial reflects that drilling and fracking caused groundwater contamination, and this is only the beginning."
National environmental groups also weighed in on the verdict, calling it a rebuke to U.S. EPA for failing to adequately investigate Dimock years ago. The agency found in 2012 that fracking fluid had not contaminated water wells and then abruptly ended its investigation (EnergyWire, July 26, 2012).
"This is a huge victory for the people of Dimock, but it’s also a sharp rebuke to the Obama administration for failing to fully investigate fracking’s contamination of water supplies in Pennsylvania and across the country," the Center for Biological Diversity’s Kassie Siegel said in a statement. "In the face of the EPA’s disturbing history of delay and denial, a federal jury set the record straight about hydraulic fracturing’s toxic threat to our water."
John Hanger, the former chief of DEP who criticized EPA for not taking a closer look at methane contamination in Dimock, also praised the verdict yesterday, writing "Justice delivered!" on Twitter and adding that industry should view the decision as a wake-up call.
Industry advocate Tom Shepstone, meanwhile, criticized the verdict as a flawed decision based on sympathy for the families and "feelings vs. facts."
"So, given the evidence in the record that the water was safe to drink and, yet, the plaintiffs refused to use it, how could there be any damages whatsoever?" he wrote in a blog post yesterday. "There is only one possible answer; this jury put more value on feelings than facts."