When the Headley family bought their 115-acre Springhill property in 2005, they didn't know the previous owner had leased the land to a gas company.
"We came home to visit one day and they were beginning a road across the property," David Headley, 54, said while standing in front of his Fayette County home. "We never gave them any consent."
In the intervening years, Mr. Headley and his wife, Linda, 44, have grown increasingly exasperated with gas companies they say have released dangerous chemicals into the air from a well a couple hundred feet from their front door, dumped bentonite into a stream that runs through their property and allowed gun-toting employees to roam their land.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been of limited help, they say, because even citations haven't led to a dramatic change in behavior.
This month, the Headleys joined five other Fayette County families in a lawsuit filed in Allegheny County that is built around claims that gas companies are causing nuisances and unreasonably interfering with the enjoyment of their property.
"It's never been the main focus of a lawsuit against a gas company," said Charlie Speer, the Missouri attorney representing the Fayette County families.
Mr. Speer said he's had success claiming that hog farms created an unreasonable use of property in Missouri, an argument he thinks can be extended to the gas industry in Pennsylvania.
"This country was founded on private property rights," he said. "Our homes are our biggest investment in life and we want to be comfortable and safe in our homes. They feel like their government has failed to protect them, failed to listen to them."
Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the DEP, said it responds to every complaint of misconduct and has doubled the number of oil and gas inspections completed compared with last year.
"We are seeing less violations as more wells are drilled," Mr. Sunday said. "But there still are times when companies fall short, and when they do, we take action to protect the environment."
The lawsuit requests unspecified compensation from Chevron Corp, Atlas America LLC, WPX Energy, The Williams Companies Inc. and at least one of its subsidiaries, Laurel Mountain Midstream, for chemical leaks, noise, dust and property damage caused by 12 natural gas wells and a compressor station.
According to the lawsuit, the gas companies are responsible for problems including wells with integrity issues, discharges of industrial waste, excessive traffic and harassing behavior by employees.
All of the gas companies named as defendants declined to comment, except WPX Energy, which said it does not operate in Fayette County and has been wrongly named in the lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs, Joseph Bezjak, said he agreed to lease his land but "I would give the money back to have my land back the way it was," adding that he isn't opposed to gas exploration as a way of reducing dependence on foreign oil.
The lawsuit claims his stock of Black Angus cattle were destroyed when a fence on his property was taken down, allowing the cows to interbreed.
When he talks about his relationship with the gas companies, he smacks his fingers against his table for emphasis. "I'm hoping to open the eyes of the citizens of our county. Some of these people are very poor [and they] aren't paying too much attention to it," he said.
Kate Sinding, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said one of the main advantages of nuisance litigation is that it "gets away from the really difficult issues of causation."
"Because of the lack of baseline water testing in many cases [and] what kind of chemical constituents that gas companies are using in the area, it can be really hard to show that there was contamination," Ms. Sinding said.
Since nuisance claims don't rely on scientific evidence to show that a company impacted a specific piece of land, the arguments may be more appealing to those who feel their quality of life has been adversely affected but would otherwise have trouble definitively proving an instance of contamination.
But some lawyers, Mr. Speer included, doubt this case will bring a flood of new litigation.
Ken Komoroski, an attorney for Norton Rose Fulbright who has represented gas companies for about 25 years, said nuisance claims won't gain much traction because there is already a strong regulatory regime in place designed to prevent precisely the kind of nuisances that are alleged in the lawsuit.
"Pennsylvania has a very robust set of regulatory requirements," Mr. Komoroski said, adding that nuisance is a legal theory more appropriate in areas where there isn't strong regulation. "It's simply a change in tactics that is at best unconventional."
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman First Published June 25, 2013 4:00 AM