Opinion

Judge overturns decision on Pennsylvania water pollution


In an unusual move, a federal judge has overturned a US$4.24 million jury award and has ordered a new trial in the case of two Pennsylvania families who alleged that their water had been polluted by hydraulic fracturing being carried out by Marcellus shale driller Cabot Oil & Gas.

Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson said that the evidence presented in last year's trial in Scranton was “spare, sometimes contradictory, frequently rebutted by other scientific expert testimony, and relied in some measure upon tenuous inferences”. The plaintiffs are from the community of Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Carlson also pointed to what he said were many “weaknesses” in the case, and “serious and troubling irregularities in the testimony and presentation of the plaintiffs' case – including repeated and regrettable missteps by counsel in the jury's presence”.

Because of this, he said he must strike down the award by the eight-member jury against the gas driller and he ordered a new trial. “We do not take this step lightly, and we recognise the significance of voiding the judgment of a panel of jurors who sat through nearly three weeks of trial and reached a unanimous verdict,” he wrote.

The case became well-publicised, and was featured prominently in the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland”, which was released in 2010.

Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely and Ray and Victoria Hubert sued Cabot in 2009 claiming that the company's gas drilling activity had polluted their water wells. But Cabot has maintained that its drilling was not the cause of the elevated methane levels in the wells in the northeastern Pennsylvania village.

Initially, there were over 40 plaintiffs, but the others settled with Cabot out of court. Tests have shown that the wells did contain high levels of methane but no chemicals associated with fracking fluid.

“Cabot is pleased with Judge Carlson's decision to vacate the verdict and the award in its entirety,” Cabot spokesman George Stark told media. “Cabot felt confident that once a thorough review of the overwhelming scientific evidence and a full legal analysis of the conduct of the plaintiff's counsel was conducted, the flaws in the verdict would be understood.”

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