An oil and gas driller is on the hook for the high-profile case of Pennsylvania water contamination that has stoked opposition to hydraulic fracturing across the country for years, a jury decided today.
After a three-week trial at the U.S. District Court in Scranton, a 10-person jury decided that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. should be held responsible for two families’ water problems. The case boiled down to nuisance claims that the families could not enjoy their property because of Cabot’s actions (EnergyWire, March 8).
Early news reports say Cabot must pay $2.75 million to the Ely family and $1.49 million to the Hubert family, the only remaining litigants in a lawsuit that began in 2009 with more than 40 plaintiffs — most of whom settled in 2012.
The jury deliberated most of yesterday evening and continued this morning before handing up the decision just before lunchtime.
The verdict closes the book on years of litigation and investigations into whether the company’s Marcellus Shale wells fouled drinking water in the northeast Pennsylvania township of Dimock eight years ago.
Featured in the anti-fracking film "Gasland," Dimock’s brown, odorous and flammable water became emblematic of problems that could arise as fracking and horizontal drilling sparked a rapid expansion of shale development across the country. State regulators eventually determined that private water wells were contaminated with methane — a problem associated not with fracking but with shoddy well construction. U.S. EPA in 2012 found that fracking fluid did not contaminate the water.
Josh Fox, creator of "Gasland," told Greenwire he was "overjoyed" by the news.
"People say this was like David and Goliath," he said. "Well, we just got a reminder of how that story ends."
Leslie Lewis, the attorney representing the Ely and Hubert families, did not respond by deadline to a request for comment. Grass-roots environmental groups celebrated the news.
"The outcome of this trial is the inevitable result of the processes used in the drilling," said B. Arrindell, director of the anti-fracking group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, adding later: "This vindication of the suffering and damage is long-awaited and a tribute to the strength of the plaintiffs, their lawyers and the evidence."
Cabot has denied responsibility all along, pointing to natural methane levels that have existed in the region’s groundwater for years. The company had hoped the trial would present an opportunity to move past the often-emotional debate over the risks of development in the area. Instead, the verdict is likely to spark renewed tension among industry, landowners and environmentalists.
Cabot spokesman George Stark said the verdict was surprising and not based on science, and said Cabot would try to get the decision thrown out.
"Cabot is surprised at the jury’s verdict given the lack of evidence provided by plaintiffs in support of their nuisance claim," he said in a statement. "The verdict disregards overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations. 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."