A Pennsylvania jury handed down a $4.24 million verdict in a lawsuit centering on water contamination from negligent shale gas drilling in Dimock, PA, a tiny town that made international headlines for its flammable and toxic drinking water.
The defendant in the lawsuit, Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., had strenuously denied that it had caused any harm to the plaintiffs or their drinking water. In 2012, the company reached a settlement with roughly 40 other residents along Carter Road in Dimock, but the terms of that settlement were never made public and included a “non-disparagement” clause that prevents those who settled from speaking out about their experiences with Cabot.
The verdict, which was reported by the Associated Press, comes as long-awaited vindication for the Hubert and Ely families, who refused to settle in part because they wanted their voices heard, they said at a press conference when the trial began in Scranton on February 22.
The lawsuit stretched on for nearly seven years, and the plaintiffs were at one point forced to represent themselves in court after being unable to find legal counsel following the settlement of the vast majority of the plaintiffs.
The Huberts and the Elys still live on Carter Road, hauling their water by truck – a chore that became far more cumberson in the winter when hoses often froze and water tanks must be heated, Scott Ely, a former Cabot subcontractor turned whistleblower, had testified.
The jury directed Cabot to pay Nolen Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely each $1.3 million, and an additional $150,000 for their three children, and to pay Ray and Victoria Hubert each $720,000, plus an additional $50,000 for their child.
Because the lawsuit's scope had been narrowed dramatically before trial, the plaintiffs were not permitted to pursue Cabot for any harms done to their health, but only for the damage to property and the personal nuisance that the water contamination had caused.
The case has been closely watched by the oil and gas industry, which has often reached secret settlements in claims of drilling and fracking contamination – creating uncertainty about the frequency and extent of accidents and misconduct.
State and federal environmental regulators have cited non-disclosure agreements as a major hurdle preventing a full assessment of the risks related to the shale oil and gas drilling rush.
The jury's verdict on water contamination in Dimock may have broad implications for the broader debate about the environmental risks of the shale drilling rush nationwide. Although the case did not center on claims that the fracking process (as opposed to drilling, well casing failures, spills or other problems) had directly caused the Ely and Hubert's water contamination, most of the gas wells that the plaintiffs focused their attention on were aimed at the Marcellus shale gas formation.
“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 threats posed by fracking and dangerous drilling to water supplies in Pennsylvania and across the country,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Because of the EPA’s disturbing history of delay and denial, it took a federal jury to set the record straight about the natural gas industry’s toxic threat to our water.”
In many ways, the case was also a triumph for local grassroots organizers who have worked on the ground to help families in Dimock and across the state since the shale drilling rush arrived. Neighbors, environmental organizers, and locals-turned-activists in the region have spent countless hours helping to haul water for those who, like the Elys and Huberts, lost clean drinking water.
Without the resources of large environmental groups or law firms at their disposal, the Carter Road families had turned to crowd-funding to help raise some of the costs associated with keeping a legal case going for years. Energy Justice Network, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, fiscally sponsored the legal fund for the case and have been working with the family since 2009.
“This is a huge victory for Dimock families who have fighting for clean water for over six years,” said Alex Lotorto, Shale Gas Program Coordinator for Energy Justice Network.
The lawsuit pitted solo practitioner Leslie Lewis and attorney Elisabeth Radow against a team of litigators and attorneys from Norton Rose Fulbright, a London-based law firm which in 2014 was the seventh highest-grossing law firm in the world.
Representatives for Cabot denied that the Ely and Hubert families had proven their case sufficiently despite the jury's verdict and continued to assert that the company had acted prudently in its operations on Carter Road. “Cabot is surprised at the jury's verdict given the lack of evidence provided by plaintiffs in support of their nuisance claim,” the company said in a statement provided to DeSmog. “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.”
Of course, the role of a jury is to determine what claims are true and what claims are false, a fact that plaintiff's attorneys had reminded the 8-member panel during closing arguments.
"The truth is to be found in the totality of the evidence," Ms. Lewis had said, according to local press reports. "It’s very important that when a company like Cabot harms Pennsylvania families … that the courts are a sanctuary for people to seek justice."
This piece has been updated to include responses from the parties and interested observers and additional details. Further updates will be added as additional information becomes available.
Photo Credit: The Ely family outside the U.S. District Court in Scranton, PA on the day that trial began. © 2016 Laura Evangelisto
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