Two Pennsylvania families who have been fighting to prove that a fracking company polluted their well water got a major win in court this week. A federal jury awarded the Dimock, PA residents $4.24 million Thursday, after finding that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. — one of Pennsylvania’s largest oil and gas companies — guilty of polluting their well water with methane.
The couples — Nolen Scott Ely, Monica Marta-Ely, and Raymond and Victoria Hubert — first sued Cabot back in 2009, the Times-Tribune of Scranton reports, a suit that at the time was joined by about 40 other homeowners, all alleging well water pollution from Cabot’s oil and gas activities. That suit reached a settlement with most of the plaintiffs in 2012, but the Elys and Huberts refused to settle, deciding instead to continue fighting the case in federal court.
A teary Nolen Scott Ely said after the trial that he was “at a loss for words” over the agreement.
“There were six Goliaths in there, and all I had was just a little pea stone,” he said of Cabot’s legal team. “It was quite the battle, and as you heard today, we’re at the end. It’s done.”
Ely also said the suit wasn’t about the money, but about getting the word out that Cabot “did something wrong.”
“We’re voicing ourselves, we’re standing up for our rights,” he said. “We walked into the courtroom with our heads held high.”
The jury ruled Thursday that the two couples had “proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Cabot was negligent in the drilling or completing” of the wells near their homes. It also ruled that Cabot “negligently created a private nuisance” which harmed the couples and caused them to lose the “use and enjoyment of their property.” The jury awarded $2.6 million to the Elys, along with $50,000 to each of their children, and $1.4 million to the Huberts.
“You have to really live it in order to feel it,” Monica Ely told WNEP in February, before the trial started. “We haven’t had clean water since my son was in kindergarten, and now he’s in seventh grade, so they don’t know any different and it’s not a normal way of life.”
Cabot, however, has maintained that the higher-than-normal methane levels in the plaintiffs’ wells aren’t from their operations.
“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. “The verdict disregards overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations.”
The company also said it would 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.”
Dimock, which was featured in the 2010 fracking documentary “Gasland,” has been called “ground zero” in the fight over fracking. Cabot alone has had 130 drilling violations in Dimock, and is currently prohibited from drilling anywhere within a nine-mile radius of the township. Research has found that in Pennsylvania, fracking operations are more likely to be located in lower-income, rural regions like Dimock. The state made public 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas operations in 2014.
Water contamination has also been linked to oil and gas operations in Texas, Ohio, California, and West Virginia. A study last year, which sought to figure out how oil and gas operations could end up contaminating water, found that casing and cementing failures in wells — not the acutal fracking process — was often to blame. This potential for operations to contaminate water has led several environmental groups to call for more rigorous oversight of the industry.
“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,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement. “Because of the EPA’s disturbing history of delay and denial, it took a federal jury to set the record straight about hydraulic fracturing’s toxic threat to our water.”