Steve Lipsky, a Texas homeowner, has found himself at the center of a $3 million lawsuit for defamation from an oil and gas company, after he exposed the company for contaminating his water supply with methane and benzene.
Despite his attempts to avert the expensive legal entanglement, Julie Dermansky reports at DeSmogBlog that last month the Fort Worth Court of Appeals allowed the defamation case to move forward.
Lipsky sued Range Resources originally in 2011, prompted by an Environmental Protection Agency order that Range Resources endangered Texas residents’ health. His case was dismissed, because the presiding judge claimed there was no jurisdiction, but Range Resources took the unusual step of countersuing Lipsky for libel. It alleged that Lipsky and others conspired to get “the EPA and the media to wrongly label and prosecute Range as a polluter of the environment.” The company said that his public video of Lipsky lighting on fire a methane-filled hose escaping from his water well was an unfair portrayal, even though Lipsky maintains he can still set the water on fire in a video from October.
“The hose was used in the interest of safety, not to deceive anyone,” Lipsky told DeSmogBlog, before lighting fire at the end of the hose again. But according to Range Resources and the judge who dismissed Lipsky’s lawsuit in 2012, Lipsky could not possibly light his water on fire. The video “was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media with a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning,” the judge wrote at the time.
Though Lipsky is accused of dishonesty, investors have accused Range Resources of the same. The investment group Trillium recently blamed Range for a “level of disclosure related to methane leakage [that] is woefully inadequate.”
For Range Resources, it’s common practice to silence critics through settlement agreements or lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, it settled with a homeowner with one major caveat: The entire family, including two young children, could never speak publicly about their polluted home — for the rest of their lives. These settlements mean there are an unknown number of times residents must choose between exposing a company and accepting compensation to relocate.
There are more threats facing homeowners in fracking territory, even beyond expensive libel lawsuits. At least 11 states have introduced anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bills that could end up banning the public from filming fracking operations. By criminalizing watchdog actions, activists worry these bills will only contribute to the secrecy that surrounds contamination from the industry.