More than a dozen families living in a northeastern Pennsylvania town in the heart of the Marcellus Shale on Thursday sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and a service operator, claiming that their water wells became contaminated when the producer used hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) to stimulate production from area natural gas wells. The plaintiffs claim the hydrofracing "fluid and/or drilling mud includes hazardous chemicals that are carcinogenic and toxic."

The plaintiffs include about 45 people, including children, who live in the Carter Road area of Dimrock Township in Susquehanna County, PA. The lawsuit was filed against Houston-based Cabot and Gas Search Drilling Services Corp. in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (Fiorentino et al v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. et al, No. 3:09-cv-02284-UN2). The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and the cost of future health monitoring.

"Cabot continues to cooperate with the DEP [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] to ensure protection of residents and their property," said Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges. "While we respect the right of any resident to seek a judicial solution for a legitimate issue, we see no merit in these claims and are disappointed that these citizens felt it necessary to proceed in this fashion. We do not believe this matter will impact our continuing operations in the area."

Leslie Lewis, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs, said the residents were driven to file the lawsuit because of the "extent of the disturbance" where they live.

"It is a courageous step that these Carter Road families are taking," said Lewis. "They wouldn't have gotten to this point if it hadn't become an untenable situation."

According to the 24-page complaint, the plaintiffs have "become physically sick and ill, manifesting neurological, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms, as well demonstrating blood study results consistent with toxic exposure to, for example, heavy metals...Plaintiffs live in constant fear of future physical illness, particularly with respect to the health of their minor children and grandchildren," and they "live in a constant state of severe emotional distress consistent with post traumatic stress syndrome."

The lawsuit said that beginning in 2006 Cabot obtained from each of the plaintiffs an executed oil and gas lease agreement, which detailed how Cabot would "reasonably and thoroughly test" the plaintiffs' domestic water supplies before and after drilling operations had begun to ensure that they would not be adversely affected and that the company would "fully disclose" the results of the water tests.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants at certain times were "otherwise negligent and/or grossly negligent," which caused combustible gas, elevated levels of dissolved methane, natural gas, pollutants, diesel fuel and drilling mud to be released into the plaintiffs' water wells and fresh groundwater.

In January, the complaint said, an explosion occurred in an outside, below-grade water well pit on the property of plaintiff Norma Fiorentino, which the plaintiffs claim was caused by evaporated methane gas that had accumulated in the wellhead on her property; a fire also allegedly occurred in the well vent on the property of plaintiffs Michael and Andrea Ely.

The complaint also pointed to the "three significant spills of pollutants" that occurred within the Dimrock gas well area within a 10-day period in September, for which Cabot was ordered by DEP to briefly cease operations (see NGI, Oct. 26; Sept. 28).

However, earlier this month Cabot entered a consent order and agreement with DEP for a nine-square-mile area in Susquehanna County, which requires the company to provide a temporary water supply or treatment device to 13 homes. The area was identified by DEP because of concerns about the presence of methane in groundwater supplies.

A few days ago the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission said law enforcement officers and biologists would begin field inspections of active drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale in December. More than 150 active well sites have been identified so far for inspections, which would take place over the next several months.

"Until now our agency has only reacted to those drilling sites where a problem resulted in material entering a waterway or wetlands," said PFBC Executive Director Douglas Austen. "We are now taking a proactive approach to identify possible problems at a drilling site and to work with the company to ensure [that] necessary measures are in place to minimize the possibility of damaging nearby waterways."

The agency wants to focus on those well sites that are in close proximity to state waterways, including wetlands. The inspections would determine if adequate measures are in place at the drilling site and access roads to prevent damage to the nearby aquatic resources.

As part of the inspections, PFBC staff also plans to obtain water quality data from several locations in the nearby waterways.

"The commission recognizes the need for and importance of the development of the Marcellus Shale for gas production and believes it can be accomplished in a manner that provides protection to Pennsylvania's valuable aquatic resources," Austen said. "Because of the importance of this issue, waterways conservation officers and field staff have set aside other job duties and functions for a period of time in order to conduct these field inspections."

What affect the Dimrock lawsuit could have on other drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere is unclear. Producers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use for drilling because of an exemption attached in 2005 to the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, Congress is weighing legislation that would require the disclosure of hydrofracing chemicals (see related story; NGI, June 15).

Concern about water contamination from drilling operations is not confined to Dimrock. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August said in a preliminary report that at least three contaminated water wells near Pavillion, WY, contained a hydrofrac chemical used by gas drillers (see NGI, Aug. 31). Anecdotal incidents about water contamination near gas drilling sites also has been reported by residents in Colorado, Louisiana and Texas.

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