Pennsylvania fracking trial begins, pitting families against driller

SCRANTON, Pa. (Reuters) - Cabot Oil & Gas Co contaminated drinking water for two Pennsylvania families in its rush to begin fracking operations during the state’s natural gas boom, a lawyer told a federal jury in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday at the start of a civil trial.

Leslie Lewis, who represents two families from the town of Dimock, told a six-member jury that Cabot had shown “reckless disregard” for the safety of her clients and other local residents.

But Stephen Dillard, a lawyer for the Houston, Texas-based energy company, said in his opening statement that the town’s groundwater already contains naturally occurring methane and that experts would testify humans cannot be harmed by methane-laced water.

“The issues they have are cosmetic and aesthetic,” Dillard said. “Those can be treated, but it’s not toxic.”

Dimock figured prominently in the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland,” which examined the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from underground shale formations.

The movie showed tap water in Dimock that could be set on fire due to the methane it contained.

Scott Ely and his wife, Monica Marta-Ely, and Ray and Victoria Hubert are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Cabot. They are the last of approximately 40 plaintiffs who sued Cabot in 2009; the others have all settled with the company.

The trial is one of the first lawsuits alleging water contamination from fracking to reach a jury.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson rejected Lewis’ request to introduce a bottle of coffee-and-cream colored water drawn from the Ely well on Tuesday morning as evidence. He said the deadline for submitting new exhibits had passed and that jurors could view photos of the turbid water already in evidence.

Dillard told jurors that scientific evidence would show there is no underground pathway between nearby gas wells and the families’ water wells.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

The enormous Marcellus formation, which stretches underground across Pennsylvania and into several other states, prompted a massive natural gas boom starting in 2008.

Editing by Joseph Ax and David Gregorio