Fracking is on trial in Pennsylvania this week as two families, who refused to settle in their pursuit of justice, have launched a court battle against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.
Neighbors Scott Ely and his wife, Monica Marta-Ely, and Ray and Victoria Hubert are accusing the fossil fuel giant of groundwater contamination, resulting in the loss of their drinking water supply.
Both families live in the town of Dimock, which has become the cornerstone in the fight against fracking and was featured in the 2010 documentary Gasland. The film is credited with exposing the toxic impacts of the drilling process, spurring the national anti-fracking movement.
During opening arguments on Tuesday, attorney Leslie Lewis told the jury that Cabot had shown "reckless disregard" for the health and safety of her clients and other members of the community.
As NPR's State Impact notes, "The region surrounding Dimock is what’s known as the 'sweet spot,' breaking records with gushing shale gas wells and spurring an upswing in interstate pipeline construction."
However, since 2008, Dimock families have reported problems with their drinking water, and experienced rashes, nausea, headaches, and dizziness, according to Energy Justice, which is providing legal support for the plaintiffs.
The road to the courtroom has been bitter and complicated, advocates say. Originally, 22 families from Dimock and Springville Townships in Susquehanna County were involved in the case but, as it dragged on, all but the Elys and the Huberts have settled with Cabot.
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The case marks "one of the first lawsuits alleging water contamination from fracking to reach a jury," according to Reuters, but the challenges of pinning groundwater contamination on a powerful drilling company have been evidenced by the families' journey.
State Impact explains:
The original lawsuit included personal injury and fraud, but those claims have been dismissed for lack of evidence. And there is no evidence to be presented on any cancer-causing toxins in the water, or practices involving horizontal, slick water hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking. The claims surround high methane levels in the Ely and Hubert water supplies, which the plaintiffs, and the Department of Environmental Protection, say were caused by Cabot’s drilling operations.
The plaintiffs’ case has been whittled down to just two issues, nuisance and property claims. The jury has to decide whether Cabot was negligent in their drilling practices and if so, whether the company made life for the residents bad enough they deserve compensation.
As the first witness to testify on Tuesday, Scott Ely described his well water to the jury as "brown...brown and full of gas," referring to the heightened presence of methane in the Dimock well water.
Ely explained how when he worked for Cabot-owned Gas Drilling Services from 2008 to 2008 he witnessed first-hand what Lewis described as a "reckless rush to drill."
"We were in a competition to see who could drill the hole faster," he said. "We would try to go as quickly as we could. I was on two to three sites a day. It was a quick, fast process. In and out, in and out."
"We had diesel fuel spills, acid spills. There was flowback onto the bank," Ely added. In one instance, State Impact reports, Ely described tearing the lining of a wastewater pond with a backhoe and watched the contents seep into the ground. Only later, when his children developed headaches and rashes, did he have the suspicion that those drilling practices connected to his own water supply.