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Marcellus Shale Drilling Boom Brought Pain And Profit to Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County

Nov 8, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County appears to have become ground zero in the debate over hydraulic fracturing. While many in the county, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest, have welcomed the cash and jobs that have accompanied the recent Marcellus shale natural gas drilling boom, many believe the environmental costs of hydraulic fracturing have been too high.

The Marcellus shale, a massive rock formation that stretches from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, is often described as the nation’s largest source of natural gas. To get to that gas, drillers use a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface.  

In Susquehanna County, many property owners have accepted lucrative offers to allow drilling on their land, while others have leased their mineral rights to drillers. And it is true that others in the county are benefiting economically. According to The New York Times, a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University recently estimated that gas companies had spent $4.5 billion developing the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, generating $389 million in state and local tax revenue and more than 44,000 jobs.

Still, some Susquehanna County residents who eagerly signed agreements with natural gas drillers have come to have second thoughts, according to The New York Times. Take Rowena Shager of South Gibson, for example. In 2007, she negotiated a nearly $20,000 deal to lease her 57 acres to Southwestern Energy Company. Marlene Dean, also of South Gibson, leased her mineral rights to Southwestern Energy Company around the same time. According to the Times, Shager, Dean and some of their neighbors began having problems with their well water in 2008. They believe that Southwestern — through sloppy operations — somehow managed to pollute their water with drilling or fracking fluids.

“If I thought I was putting my family’s life in jeopardy, or taking away from the value of my property, I never would have signed,” Shager told the Times.

Thirteen families – including Shager and Dean – filed suit against Southwestern Energy in September for allegedly polluting their well water. The lawsuit alleges that the families have been and continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, including barium, manganese and strontium. One individual is alleged to have become physically ill, and exhibits neurological symptoms consistent with toxic exposure to heavy metals, the lawsuit said.

The families are being represented by the national law firm of Parker Waichman LLP; the Law Offices of Michael Gleeson, based in Archbald, Pennsylvania; Neblett, Beard and Arsenault of Alexandria, Louisiana; and Becnel Law Firm of Reserve, Louisiana. The same group of attorneys filed another Pennsylvania lawsuit just last month on behalf of a woman living in adjacent Bradford County. That lawsuit alleges that natural gas drilling conducted by Chesapeake Appalachia, LLP has poisoned her water well, and has caused the plaintiff to suffer a variety of health problems.

Other people living in the area have also reported water problems since fracking began. Perhaps the most well-known incident occurred in the Susquehanna County town of Dimock. There, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have allegedly caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps. At least 15 families in Dimock have filed suit against Cabot over their water problems.

According to The New York Times, the state recently announced $12 million plan to pipe municipal water from Montrose down to Dimock. The cost is to be paid by Cabot Oil and Gas, which has already been providing expensive water filtering systems to many residents despite what it claims is a lack of any credible evidence that its drilling caused contamination.


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