Washington County families sue over fracking, water testing
Beth Voyles of Washington, Pa., pets one of her horses, G.R. Shakin the Piggybank, at her McAdams Road home on Thursday.
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Three Washington County families claim in a lawsuit that they face serious health problems, including a heightened risk of cancer, due to exposure to toxic spills, leaks and air pollutants from a Range Resources Marcellus Shale gas site.
The 182-page lawsuit, filed Friday in Washington County Common Pleas Court, alleges that Range and two commercial water testing laboratories, Microbac Laboratories Inc. and Test America, conspired to produce fraudulent test reports that misrepresented the families' well water as good and contributed to their exposure to hazardous chemicals and a multitude of health problems.
Filed by attorneys John and Kendra Smith, the lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and is based on information contained in hundreds of pages of water test reports and documents, many subpoenaed from Range and other defendants. In addition to Range, defendants named in the suit include 12 of the drilling company's subcontractors or suppliers, two individuals and the two water testing laboratories. A jury trial is requested.
According to the lawsuit, Range Resources knew its shale gas development operation on the Yeager farm property on McAdams Road in Amwell had contaminated the groundwater with chemicals from a leaking drilling waste pit and a 3 million-gallon hydraulic fracturing fluid flowback impoundment as early as November 2010. But, the suit states, the company told the plaintiffs that tests showed their well water was safe to drink, shower and bathe in, cook with, and provide to farm animals and pets. Some of those animals were sickened, and some died.
The suit says the plaintiffs developed health problems that included nose bleeds, headaches and dizziness, skin rashes, ear infections, nausea, and numbness in extremities.
"It's unfortunate that our 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," said Mr. Smith in a written response to a request for comment. "Had the [state Department of Environmental Protection] protected these people, it may have been a different outcome."
Mr. Smith said the lawsuit is the first he knows of in Pennsylvania to allege that a Marcellus Shale gas drilling company didn't provide complete and fully accurate water test results to residents and state regulators.
Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella issued a statement saying the company cares about the quality of its operations and stands by testing that "has repeatedly proven that our operations have had no adverse impacts in this instance." His statement went on to attack the motives of the law firm and attorneys representing the Amwell residents, and its tactics, which he characterized as "fear-mongering."
"This isn't about health and safety; it's unfortunately about a lawyer hoping to pad his pockets, while frightening a lot of people along the way," he said.
Mr. Smith said it's easier to attack the messenger than to refute facts.
Range Resources has maintained for years that its Yeager operations, which include one "fracked" well and two drilled wells, condensate tanks, the flowback fluids impoundment and drill cuttings pit, have not contaminated groundwater.
The suit says full and complete test results, subpoenaed from Range but never revealed to residents near the Yeager well site, show that chemical contaminants similar to those found in the fracking flowback impoundment and the drill cuttings pit were also found in water samples from wells and springs.
Range showed or sent to the plaintiffs and the DEP less detailed test reports but, the lawsuit claims, omitted results for others, including several semi-volatile organic compounds that were present in the groundwater samples and the company's impoundment and pit, and that showed the water was contaminated.
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday declined to comment because the matter is in litigation.
Due to continuing health problems, three of the plaintiffs, Stacey Haney and her children have, on the advice of their doctor, moved out of their home on McAdams Road, about 1,500 feet from the Yeager flowback-water impoundment.
Toxicity testing of urine from all the Haney family members has measured higher than safe levels of toulene, benezene, arsenic, cobalt and cadmium. Benezene and arsenic are known carcinogens.
Plaintiffs Beth, John and Ashley Voyles, who live about 800 feet from the impoundment and drill site, and Loren Kiskadden and his mother, Grace Kiskadden, who live in separate homes about 3,100 feet from the Yeager impoundment, have had similar health problems and urine test results.
The filing alleges that in September 2011 Range provided incomplete drinking water test results from Test America to the DEP that omitted findings showing a high concentration of nitrate -- which can cause cancer -- plus fracking fluid, flowback water, uranium and silicon.
Mrs. Voyles sued the DEP in Commonwealth Court in May 2011, claiming the department wasn't properly investigating odor and water complaints related to the Yeager impoundment. That case is pending.
Today both the Voyles and Haney properties are receiving replacement water supplied by Range.
But Range has denied Mr. Kiskadden's request that it supply him with an alternative water source, based on the water test results that the company and the DEP said shows his well water was not contaminated by its drilling operations. He has appealed that determination by the DEP to the state Environmental Hearing Board.
The lawsuit also says Range used the Yeager drill cuttings pit to dispose of hazardous drilling waste from at least three other gas drilling sites in Washington County, and the pit leaked and contaminated groundwater.
In April 2010, DEP issued a notice of violation against Range for "failing to control/dispose of production fluids properly," and a month later Range drained the pit, replaced the pit liner and excavated contaminated soil. Range has not been fined for that violation.
It's the only violation DEP has issued to Range for its Yeager operations or to any of the defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges the defendants committed various violations of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, the state Solid Waste Management Act, and the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act.
First Published May 26, 2012 12:00 am