Pennsylvania Fracking Lawsuit Claims Natural Gas Drilling Fouled Water Wells

Southwest Energy Production Company, a Houston, Texas-based gas drilling firm conducting hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania, has been sued by 13 Susquehanna County families who claim a nearby gas well has contaminated the water wells they rely on for drinking, bathing, cooking and washing. The lawsuit also names Southwestern Energy Company, the parent firm of Southwest Energy Production, as a defendant.

The complaint was filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania Civil Division (Civil Action No: 2010-1882CP). The families are being represented by <"">Parker Waichman Alonso LLP; The Law Office of Michael Gleeson; Neblett, Beard & Arsenault; and the Becnel Law Firm, LLC.

The lawsuit alleges that the families have been and continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, including barium, manganese and strontium. One individual is alleged to have become physically ill, and exhibits neurological symptoms consistent with toxic exposure to heavy metals. The other families live in constant fear of future physical illness, particularly with respect to the health of their minor children and grandchildren, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Southwest Energy Production owns and operates the Price #1 Well in Lenox Township, near where the plaintiffs live. The company began hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations there in 2008. The complaint charges that Southwest Energy Production Company was negligent in the drilling, construction and operation of the Price #1 Well and allowed pollutants, including fracking fluid, to be discharged into the ground or into the waters near Plaintiffs’ homes and water wells. The lawsuit further alleges that the composition of fracking fluid includes hazardous chemicals that are carcinogenic and toxic.

For the past two years, gas drillers have been descending upon Pennsylvania, anxious to tap the vast natural gas resources in the state’s Marcellus shale. Since 2008, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued 3,800 Marcellus shale well permits. In the same time period, drillers have been cited for over 1,400 violations. Of those, 952 were identified as having or likely to have an impact on the environment. Those included 100 violations of the state Clean Stream Law, 268 for improper construction of waste water impoundments; 277 for poor erosion and sedimentation plans during well pad, road and piping construction; 16 for improper blowout prevention; and 154 for discharging industrial waste, including drilling waste water containing toxic chemicals, onto the ground or into streams.

Some parts of rural Pennsylvania have paid a horrific price for fracking gone bad. In the town of Dimock, also in Susquehanna County, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps.

In October 2009, state regulators finally acknowledged that a major contamination of the aquifer had occurred. In addition to methane, dangerously high levels of iron and aluminum were found in some wells. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The chemicals that make up that fracking fluid are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so drillers don’t have to disclose what is contained in their fracking fluids.

Drillers got the regulatory exemption by convincing Congress that fracking fluids are ultimately removed from the shale formations into which they are pumped. But recent evidence suggest otherwise. A ProPublica investigation recently purported that “as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale.” Likewise, the water treatment company ProChem Tech reported that “generally 10 to 20% is recovered.”

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