Advertisement

Judge throws out jury decision to award $4 million to families impacted by fracking

The plaintiffs, who began their suit in 2009, will go back to court.

A machine mixes sand and water, left, before it is pumped underground during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
A machine mixes sand and water, left, before it is pumped underground during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

A judge in Pennsylvania has overturned a jury’s decision to award $4.24 million to two families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, saying that the science used in the case, which linked fracking to methane contamination in drinking water, was not adequate.

Judge Martin Carlson wrote Friday that the evidence “was spare, sometimes contradictory, frequently rebutted by other scientific expert testimony, and relied in some measure upon tenuous inferences,” the Hill reported.

The plaintiffs have argued that the fracking operations of Cabot Oil and Gas caused methane to leak into their groundwater. During fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas producers inject large volumes of chemical- and sand-laced water into shale formations far below ground. The water breaks up the shale, releasing the oil or gas deposits below.

“The judge heard the same case that the jury heard and the jury was unanimous. How can he take it upon himself to set aside their verdict? It’s outrageous,” Scott Ely, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Advertisement

The ruling, which is unusual in its voiding of a jury decision, sends the plaintiffs back to court. The two families began their lawsuit against Cabot in 2009, along with 40 other plaintiffs. All other plaintiffs in the suit settled.

“This decision marks another dark chapter for the victims of water contamination from gas drilling operations,” said Leslie Lewis, the families’ lawyer. “Upon a first review of the decision, it appears that the Court made no reference to the evidence and arguments contained in Plaintiffs thoroughly-reasoned and legally-based papers. Plaintiffs reject the Court’s conclusion that Cabot was robbed of a fair trial or that the unanimous, eight- person jury verdict was excessive. Respectfully, this is not so.”

For his part, the judge noted that the move was unusual.

“We do not take this step lightly, and we recognize the significance of voiding the judgment of a panel of jurors who sat through nearly three weeks of trial and reached a unanimous verdict,” the judge wrote.

Advertisement

Dimock’s fracking struggles were brought into the spotlight in the 2010 documentary Gasland, and natural gas production in the state has only grown since then. In 2016, Pennsylvania was the second-most natural gas producing state in the country.

Pennsylvania sits on the Marcellus shale formation, thought to be one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the world.

Proponents of natural gas have called it a “bridge” fuel to a clean energy economy, since it produces just over half as much carbon dioxide when burned as coal does. But leaking natural gas, which is 80 percent methane, has also added to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane traps heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Moreover, fracking has been connected to elevated risks of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Fracking has also been linked to elevated levels of benzene and other contaminants in groundwater supplies. In Oklahoma, wastewater disposal from fracking has been linked to earthquakes.

Concerns over environmental pollution and negative health effects have led to fracking bans in New York and, recently, Maryland, where the state legislature voted last week to make a moratorium permanent.