US Magistrate Judge Rejects Pennsylvania Fracking Award

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Originally published on Red Green & Blue.
By Meteor Blades

A U.S. magistrate judge has rejected a jury’s March 2016 decision to award more than $4 million to two families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, frackingwho claimed their well water had been tainted by methane released from underground rock formations by hydraulic fracturing — fracking. Concluding among other things that the scientific evidence presented in court was contradictory and didn’t back up the claims of damage, Judge Martin Carlson sent the case back for retrial. But first, he stated, the two families should work with the company—Cabot Oil & Gas—to arrive at a settlement. Of the 40 families who sued Cabot in 2009, these two are the only ones who have not settled.

Critics cheered the favorable ruling for the families last year as a major victory over the gas industry. In the past decade, fracking has boosted oil production in the United States higher than it’s been since 1970 and natural gas production higher than it’s ever been. But numerous hazards have been reported, including vast numbers of earthquakes in Oklahoma that many researchers say are caused by the injection of wastewater from fracking operations.

One complaint—detailed in Josh Fox’s controversial and disputed films Gasland and Gasland II about the natural gas industry’s reliance on fracking and the hazards involved—is that drinking water sources can be and have been contaminated. Last November, Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Physicians for Social Responsibility issued their fourth report compiling scientific evidence of health impacts, water contamination and climate risks of fracking. A key conclusion of their Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking: Extensive evidence indicates that no amount of regulations is capable of preventing harm from the process.

Jon Hurdle and Susan Phillips report:

But the judge, in a 58-page opinion released late Friday, reversed the award of $4.24 million against Cabot Oil & Gas which the jury determined had been negligent in its extraction of natural gas in the community.

The judge said the evidence presented during the three-week trial was often discredited or rebutted, and was “notably lacking” in respect to damages. […]

Even if the court were to find that the jury’s verdict of liability should stand, the damages could not withstand “even passing scrutiny,” he said.

Judge Carlson noted, for example, that the plaintiffs admitted that their water problems had begun before drilling in their area had. He conceded that his voiding of the eight-member jury’s unanimous verdict was an unusual step but stated that “substantial and varied weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ case,” together with many cases of “inappropriate conduct” that occurred in front of the jury during the trial may have influenced the jury.

In fact, the court barred a considerable amount of evidence of water contamination from being shown to the jury. One such bit was a consent decree from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. It labeled Cabot responsible for methane migration as a consequence of  defective construction of the drilling well.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)

Reprinted with permission.

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