Trial begins for driller sued over fouled Pennsylvania wells

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Two families who accuse one of the largest natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania of polluting their well water are trying to persuade a federal jury to hold the company accountable.

Opening statements were made Tuesday in a bitter and long-running federal lawsuit that pits homeowners in the village of Dimock against Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

Dimock was the scene of the most highly publicized case of methane contamination to emerge from the early days of Pennsylvania’s natural-gas drilling boom. State regulators blamed faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot for leaking combustible methane into Dimock’s groundwater. Cabot has consistently denied responsibility.

The rural community became a national battleground in environmental activists’ fight against fracking — the technique that allows drilling companies to extract huge volumes of oil and natural gas from rock formations deep underground — and its plight was featured in the Emmy-winning 2010 documentary “Gasland.”

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Dozens of plaintiffs settled with Cabot in 2012, but two homeowners opted to take their claims to court.

“We haven’t had clean water since my son was in kindergarten. He’s now in seventh grade,” one of the plaintiffs, Monica Marta-Ely, said outside court Monday, when jurors were selected. “It’s not a normal way of life.”

Leslie Lewis, the families’ attorney, said in opening statements that her clients’ water was clean and drinkable until Cabot drilled two natural gas wells near their homes in 2008. Stephen Dillard, Cabot’s attorney, told jurors the problems started before Cabot began drilling — and continue to this day, some six years after Cabot plugged the wells.

“One would expect … when we filled the wells with cement and shut them down, the problem should go away,” Dillard said, according to The Times-Tribune of Scranton. “Yet here we are, six years later, and the complaints continue.”

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Residents first reported problems with their wells in 2008. The water that came out of their faucets turned cloudy, foamy and discolored, and smelled and tasted foul. Homeowners, all of whom had leased their land to Cabot, said the water made them sick with symptoms that included vomiting, dizziness and skin rashes.

After a water well exploded on New Year’s Day 2009, a state investigation found that Cabot had allowed gas to escape into the region’s groundwater supplies, contaminating at least 18 residential water wells.

Cabot asserts the methane in the residents’ wells is naturally occurring.