Federal Judge Rules Against The Town Considered The ‘Ground Zero’ Of Anti-Fracking Movement

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A federal judge tossed out a jury-awarded $4 million to Pennsylvania families that claimed an oil and gas company’s nearby hydraulic fracturing operations contaminated their drinking water.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson found “weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ case and proof, coupled with serious and troubling irregularities in the testimony and presentation of the plaintiffs’ case… combined so thoroughly to undermine faith in the jury’s verdict that it must be vacated and a new trial ordered.”

Carlson ruled the jury’s $4.24 million reward to the Ely and Herbert families “bore no discernible relationship to the evidence, which was at best limited.”

About 44 Susquehanna County residents brought suit against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. in 2009 after the company began fracking operations in the area the previous year. Cabot entered into a consent decree with Pennsylvania regulators shortly after and promised to provide the town with water, cease operations and do well testing.

Cabot, however, argued Dimock’s water problems were caused by naturally-occurring methane. Cabot was held liable by state officials because under state law they are presumed liable for any water issues within 1,000 feet of a gas well.

Environmentalists swarmed Dimock, and the town quickly became ground zero for the anti-fracking movement.

The town was heavily featured in the anti-fracking film “Gasland.” Filmmaker Josh Fox showed a Dimock resident lighting water on fire as it came out of the faucet. Fox and fellow activists blamed the fire on fracking for natural gas.

Dozens of Susquehanna families settled with Cabot, but the Elys and Herberts pressed on and their case went to trial in 2016. But the plaintiff’s case was quickly undermined when their lawyer told jurors “this is not a case about toxic materials ending up in the water.”

Then, a Cornell University engineering professor often cited by anti-fracking activists admitted in court he had no proof drilling had contaminated Dimock’s drinking water.

Professor Tony Ingraffea also admitted he was an anti-fossil fuel “advocate.” Ingraffea admitted “his theory contradicted the plaintiffs’ own timeline,” according to independent journalist Phelim McAleer.

“Under Ingraffea’s theory, the ‘contamination’ could only have started in late 2008/early 2009 because that was when the gas drilling started; however, the plaintiffs have stated repeatedly that their water allegedly deteriorated in the summer of 2008 before the drilling Ingraffea has been blaming for the past 8 years,” wrote McAleer, who produced the documentary “Fracknation” in response to Fox’s anti-fracking films.

Despite these setbacks, the jury awarded the Elys and Herberts more than $4 million in March 2016, and some jurors even told plaintiff Monica Marta-Ely “they were impressed by the testimony of her children,” reported State Impact Pennsylvania.

Cabot challenged the jury’s verdict. Judge Carlson sided with Cabot, but declined to reverse the ruling in the company’s favor. Carlson ordered a new trial begin if the parties can’t reach an out of court settlement.

Carlson ruled the jury’s decision went against the “great weight of the evidence that was presented” during the trial.

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