In what is believed to be the first, but likely not the last, verdict of its kind, a jury has found a natural gas company responsible for $2.9 million in personal injury and property damages it caused by exposing a Texas family to harmful emissions of volatile organic compounds, toxic air pollutants and diesel exhaust from its fracking operations. The factual scenario underpinning this verdict is likely familiar to many of us here in the Ohio Valley who have had a front row seat for the ever-expansive natural gas drilling effort that has been going on in our back yard over the past several years.
In late 2008, Robert, Lisa and 11-year old Emily Parr started experiencing serious health problems. Lisa Parr told CNN. "My central nervous system was messed up. I couldn't hear, and my vision was messed up. My entire body would shake inside. I was vomiting white foam in the mornings." In 2009, Lisa's husband, Robert, and their daughter, Emma, also became ill, suffering a multitude of mysterious symptoms, including nosebleeds, vision problems, nausea, rashes and blood pressure issues. At the time the Parrs had little appreciation for the size and scope of drilling operations near their property. Lisa Parr dismissed her migraine headaches, nausea and dizziness as the flu. "Being that the wells were not on our property, we had no idea that what they were doing on the property around us was affecting us," Mrs. Parr said. Unfortunately, her symptoms persistently worsened, and she came to recognize that something more serious was involved. The Parrs soon learned that Aruba Petroleum placed 22 natural gas wells within a 2-mile radius of their property in Decatur, Texas, just about an hour northwest of Dallas. The closest well to the Parr's property was only 791 feet away.
Lisa Parr said that she knew by July 2010 that the "loud operation" next door to their ranch was toxic. "One night, our whole house was vibrating and shaking. We lease that property for our cattle and so I went over there to make sure our cattle wasn't around there, and when I went over there my nose and throat started burning. "My doctor, an internal specialist, found 20 chemicals in my body and he said, 'Lisa you must move immediately. You will spend more time and money on hospitals, chemotherapy, and a mortician ... and you need to get an environmental health doctor immediately.' "
Fracking is a shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing, a process by which drillers pump massive volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a shale or rock formation. The wells can be deeper than 8,000 feet, and the process fractures the shale around the well, allowing the natural gas in the shale to flow freely and be captured. The process is not without its problems. For one, the natural gas that flows from the shale rock is also accompanied by "flowback water", which contains a mix of the toxic chemicals found underground and used to frack the well in the first instance. When companies cut corners and do not dispose of that flowback water properly, local water supplies can quickly become contaminated. Another danger involves air pollution from drilling activities. Many gas drilling operations are powered with diesel fuel; while others let gas seep out from their equipment. Both practices can cause air pollution and with dozens of wells operating in the same vicinity, the impact to surrounding residents can quickly become hazardous to their health. Diesel fuel contains benzene, a known carcinogen that causes leukemia and other forms of cancer. Levels of benzene that significantly exceed the permissible exposure limit have been measured in the air surrounding a number of drilling sites throughout the Ohio Valley, suggesting that the same problems the Parrs experienced in Texas are likely to impact residents here at home under current industry practices.
Increased regulation would go a long way towards helping address some of these problems. Pennsylvania recently became the first state to enact containment regulations wherever there is flowback from natural gas wells. Pennsylvania also requires containment systems able to handle 110 percent of the volume of the largest tank on site. Hopefully West Virginia and Ohio are soon follow suit. Either way, as Lisa Parr astutely surmised, the issue boils down to company responsibility. Mrs. Parr was quoted as saying, "[w]e are not anti-fracking or anti-drilling. My goodness, we live in Texas. Keep it in the pipes, and if you have a leak or spill, report it and be respectful to your neighbors. If you are going to put this stuff in close proximity to homes, be respectful and careful." Here's hoping that this significant verdict serves as an industry-wide wake-up call to all players to be just that type of responsible corporate citizen. Until then, if you believe your, or your family's, health or property have been adversely affected by natural gas drilling activities, you should contact experienced counsel like Bordas & Bordas right away to determine your rights of redress
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