Chevron Among Drillers Facing Nuisance Suit Over Wells

By Sophia Pearson and Jim Efstathiou Jr. | June 11, 2013

Chevron Corp., Williams Cos. and WPX Energy Inc. face a lawsuit by six Pennsylvania families who claim nearby gas wells are a nuisance that have diminished their ability to make use of their property.

The families say the companies’ activities have ruined the “quiet use and enjoyment” of their homes and caused emotional damages including anxiety and fear. The homeowners seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the effects of toxic chemicals, noise and odor from nearby gas wells, according to a copy of a complaint provided by the families’ lawyers. It couldn’t immediately be verified in court records.

Advances in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and horizontal drilling have spurred a boom in states including Pennsylvania. With it have come complaints that drilling operations have spoiled water and air. Regulators in Pennsylvania have linked gas and oil drilling with about 120 cases of water contamination from 2009 to 2012, according to documents obtained through a state right-to-know request.

Since 2009, more than 35 lawsuits that allege fracking contaminated water have been filed in eight states, according to a Jan. 1 report from the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski LLP.

In those cases, homeowners must rely on scientific evidence that may not be conclusive, according to Charlie Speer, whose Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm is handling the complaint. In a nuisance case, a jury is asked to consider the intrusion into people’s lives as a result of drilling.

Twelve Wells

The plaintiffs live in Fayette County, a part of Pittsburgh’s metropolitan area with a population of about 136,000 spread across 790 miles (2,050 square kilometers), according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The county is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and the state’s largest cave, Laurel Caverns. Uniontown, the county seat located about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is the birthplace of the McDonald’s Big Mac, according to the county’s Website.

Twelve wells near the residents’ properties have been leaking natural gas, methane and other toxic and radioactive substances into the air and ground, according to the complaint. Faulty design, construction and maintenance are allegedly to blame.

Susan Oliver, a spokeswoman for WPX Energy, said the company has no operations in the county. The oil and natural gas producer was spun off from Williams Cos. on Dec. 31, 2011.

Title Chain

Speer said the company appears in the chain of title and will be removed from the suit if that’s an error.

“It’s interesting the approach that they’re taking,” Oliver said in a phone interview. “It is a legal operation and it is one of the most highly regulated industries in the U.S.”

Tom Droege, a spokesman for Williams Cos., said in an e- mail, “Our policy is not to comment on litigation.” Russell Johnson, a spokesman for Chevron, said in an e-mail “We have not been formally served, so we are unable to comment on this matter. Chevron strives to be a good neighbor in the communities where we operate.”

Speer’s clients allege that some of the wells began leaking as early as the fall of 2011.

Residents David and Linda Headley, who own 116 acres of farmland, repeatedly notified Atlas Resources LLC and other defendants about defects in the wells’ construction and design, according to the complaint.

New Tanks

Efforts by the companies to fix the problems by installing new seals, tanks and bypass lines have failed, according to the complaint. The wells continue to leak dangerous substances, have killed trees and a hayfield used by the Headleys’ horses and routinely make noise, sometimes hourly, according to the filing.

Pipeline construction has brought with it heavy equipment and truck traffic that has damaged roads, according to the plaintiffs. Drilling causes nearby houses to vibrate and pipeline company employees repeatedly urinate and defecate on their properties, according to the homeowners.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has repeatedly cited defendant Laurel Mountain Midstream Operating LLC, a subsidiary of Williams Cos.’s Williams Partners LP unit, for discharging industrial waste into a creek near the Headley’s property, according to the complaint, which cites violations in June, July and August 2012.

Noise from a compressor station run by Laurel Mountain forced Benjamin Groover Sr. and his wife Lori to abandon their residence along with their two children in June 2009. The couple has since moved within the county but still own and use the property, according to the complaint. Robert Nicklow, who lives within 800 feet (244 meters) of the station, is subjected to a “high decibel screeching sound” that can sometimes last all day, as well as toxic substances including benzene, methane and ethane.

“On many occasions, Nicklow is forced to stay indoors,” according to the complaint.

The case is Headley v. Chevron Appalachia LLC, Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh).

(Editors: Fred Strasser, Peter Blumberg)

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