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Texas fracking verdict puts industry on notice about toxic air emissions

Repost from The Center For Public Integrity

Texas fracking verdict puts industry on notice about toxic air emissions

A nearly $3 million jury verdict against a Texas oil and gas company highlights regulatory failures and health risks linked to fracking

By David Hasemyer  |  May 28, 2014 
A TCEQ investigator filmed these "heavy plumes" of emissions wafting from the Aruba facility using an infrared camera. Thirty seconds later he reportedly “felt the physical effects of dizziness and a sore throat”.   Screenshot from TCEQ video
A TCEQ investigator filmed these “heavy plumes” of emissions wafting from the Aruba facility using an infrared camera. Thirty seconds later he reportedly “felt the physical effects of dizziness and a sore throat”. Screenshot from TCEQ video

Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.

Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant “couldn’t go outside,” according to the TCEQ report.

Frustrated and angry, the Parrs decided to sue. Their attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, “intentionally created a private nuisance” that affected the family’s health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.

“When you don’t have a strong regulatory system, a system to prevent what happened to this family, the only place left to turn for help is the courts,” said Robert Percival, director of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Program.

There are no assurances the verdict against Aruba will survive an appeal or lead to regulatory changes in Texas or any of the other states where people complain their health is jeopardized by gas and oil drilling. The issues are so complex that the industry, the public and policy makers may be sorting through them for years.

Aruba has asked Judge Mark Greenberg, who presided over the Parrs’ case, to reverse the jury’s verdict. Greenberg is expected to hear arguments over the verdict in June.

“This case will be looked at very, very closely because it has set the stage in a way that has never been set before,” said attorney Tomas Ramirez. He represents two families in similar lawsuits in the booming Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas, where emissions are raising the same alarms that have been sounding in the heavily developed Barnett Shale region the Parrs call home.

Aruba used two long-standing industry arguments in its defense: That the emissions could have come from one of its competitors’ wells, and that it was in compliance with Texas environmental rules.

The fact that those arguments failed in this case “exposes every company to more possible litigation,” said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor who specializes in environmental and administrative law.

“Losing this case was not good for the industry,” McGarity said. “My guess is the industry will coalesce around this case. The industry will want to stop the dam from breaking wide open … This is where they will take a stand.”

Aruba officials declined requests for interviews but released a statement though a public relations firm that said: “We contended the plaintiffs were neither harmed by the presence of our drilling operations nor was the value of their property diminished because of our natural gas development.”

In a motion to overturn the verdict, company lawyers argued “there is no evidence that Aruba engaged in any conduct intended to cause harm … Aruba’s operations complied with best industry practices and met the standard for a reasonable and prudent oil and gas operator.”

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