Pennsylvania residents sue over gas drilling

DIMOCK, Pennsylvania Fri Nov 20, 2009 10:00am EST

DIMOCK, Pennsylvania Nov 20 (Reuters) - Residents of a small rural Pennsylvania town sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp (COG.N) on Friday, claiming the company's natural-gas drilling has contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals, caused sickness and reduced their property values.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, accuses the company of violating state environmental laws by allowing drilling chemicals to escape from gas wells, where they are used in a technique called hydraulic fracturing.

The case is one of the first to confront the industry over the technique, which critics claim pollutes aquifers with chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses.

Cabot's drilling allowed methane to escape into private water wells and in two cases caused wellhead explosions due to a gas build-up, the 45 plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim.

The lawsuit is the culmination of complaints by residents of the northeastern Pennsylvania community where Cabot has drilled dozens of gas wells in its efforts to develop the Marcellus Shale, a massive gas formation that underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states.

"These releases, spills and discharges caused the plaintiffs and their property to be exposed to such hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes," said the 12-page complaint.

The lawsuit accuses Cabot of negligence and says it has failed to restore water supplies to residents when it has been disrupted by gas drilling. It seeks a permanent injunction to stop the drilling processes that are blamed for the contamination, as well as unspecified compensatory damages.

Residents of many gas-drilling areas in the United States say the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are contaminating ground water. However, they have been unable to prove that, in part because energy companies are not required to disclose the composition of their drilling fluids.

The industry says chemicals cannot escape because they are injected through layers of steel and concrete thousands of feet below aquifers.

Industry spokesmen say there has never been a documented case of ground water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing.

Gas deposits such as the Marcellus Shale offer the United States an opportunity to reduce dependence on overseas oil imports and reduce carbon emissions, advocates say. But development could slow if fracturing is shown to be environmentally damaging.

The Dimock lawsuit says the drilling fluid, and mud used as a lubricant in drilling, contain carcinogenic chemicals.

Residents say they have suffered neurological, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms from exposure to tainted water. They also say they have had blood test results consistent with exposure to heavy metals.

In September, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection ordered Cabot to stop hydraulic fracturing at Dimock after three spills of a drilling lubricant. The ban was lifted after Cabot put additional environmental safeguards in place.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its first tests in response to claims of water contamination from gas drilling, found earlier this year that some wells in Pavillion, Wyoming were tainted but reached no conclusion on the source of the pollution.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Richard Chang)

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