Three families in western Pennsylvania have filed a lawsuit against 17 defendants, including an operator for Range Resources Corp. and two independent water testing labs, alleging that a drilling and impoundment site caused health problems. The plaintiffs also accused Range and the labs of conspiring to hide evidence of drinking water contamination.

However, a Range spokesman characterized the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in Washington County Common Pleas Court, as an attempt by unscrupulous attorneys to shake down the industry.

According to the 190-page complaint, the plaintiffs believe natural gas drilling and other activities at the Yeager site in Amwell Township, which is operated by Range Resources Appalachia LLC, contaminated their groundwater supplies. The Yeager site is reportedly one well pad with one well hydraulically fractured (fracked), two drilled wells, condensate tanks, an impoundment and a drill cuttings pit.

The plaintiffs also allege that Microbac Laboratories Inc. and Test America Inc. withheld data collected from water samples taken at their drinking water wells from them and from regulators with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). They claim the data is irrefutable evidence that Range's activities contaminated their drinking water supplies.

"Range has engaged in conduct that is outrageous because of Range's evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of the plaintiffs," the complaint said.

John Smith, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his clients "had no choice but to file a civil action due to damage not only caused to their water and property, but to their health. Had the [DEP] protected these people, it may have been a different outcome."

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella told NGI's Shale Daily that Smith is a well-known foe of the oil and natural gas industry who has been on a "two-year fishing expedition" trying to drum up charges in the Yeager site area.

"This is really a case of an attorney seeking to cash in on what he perceives to be deep pockets," Pitzarella said Wednesday. "This is the same attorney that has been at the heart of virtually every mid- to high-level altercation or issue with the industry. We believe [the plaintiffs] are a select number of people who have frankly been frightened and worked up by an opportunistic attorney that walks people down a certain path."

Pitzarella also blasted the plaintiffs' claims that Microbac and Test America somehow conspired against them with the water sampling.

"They make claims that there is data that was somehow altered in the water test, which is just completely inaccurate, and frankly their attorney knows better than that," Pitzarella said. "The thing the suit conveniently leaves out is that it's virtually identical with all of the independent water tests and analysis that the [DEP] conducted.

"You can't on one hand say Range isn't being forthright on water tests and then disregard the fact that the data that they have, which is produced by a certified licensed third party laboratory, is consistent with what the state did as well, which says that their air and water is fine."

Pitzarella confirmed that Range was providing water to two of the three families involved in the case, in compliance with Pennsylvania law.

"Any time that anyone has indicated or expressed a concern about our operations, Range has demonstrated that we care very deeply," Pitzarella said. "We take an exhaustive look with an abundance of caution into those concerns, especially as it relates to environmental health or safety concerns. [But] extensive testing of these locations by the state and Range has indicated that our operations have not had the impacts detailed in this lawsuit."

Engineers Carla Suszkowski and Scott Rusmisel and 11 other companies are named as defendants. The companies named are New Dominion Construction Inc., Terrafix Environmental Technology Inc., Skaps Industries Inc., Engineered Synthetic Products Inc., Red Oak Water Transfer NE LLC, Multi-Chem Group LLC, Universal Well Services Inc., Saxon Drilling LP, Halliburton Energy Services Inc., Highland Environmental LLC and EAP Industries Inc.

According to NGI's Shale Daily Unconventional Rig Count for the week ending May 25, drilling activity in the Marcellus Shale was down 3% from one year ago from 143 to 138 rigs. Meanwhile, Range reportedly holds the second-largest net acreage position in the Marcellus at 900,000 acres, behind only Chesapeake Energy, which holds 1,780,000 acres. Rounding out the top five are Shell (850,000), Seneca Resources (745,000) and Chevron (714,000).