SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal jury on Thursday found Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. responsible for contaminating two Susquehanna County water wells through its natural gas drilling operations and awarded the families a total of $4.24 million.
The Ely and Hubert families of Dimock Township were the last plaintiffs in a high-profile case that began in 2009 and originally included 44 of the rural town’s residents who claimed shoddy Cabot wells drilled early in the Marcellus Shale gas boom allowed methane and other constituents to migrate into their drinking water.
Cabot maintains that anything tainting the water supplies is there naturally or comes from sources other than its operations.
The jury awarded Nolen Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely each $1.3 million, plus $50,000 for each of their three children. The jury awarded Ray and Victoria Hubert each $720,000, plus $50,000 for their daughter.
The trial in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania had started on Feb. 22 and stretched into a third week. The jury of four men and four women deliberated for about eight hours on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning before reaching its verdict that Cabot was negligent in drilling two of its early wells and created a nuisance by contaminating the families’ water wells.
In a statement, Texas-based Cabot said it is surprised by the verdict because the plaintiffs lacked evidence to support their nuisance claims.
“The verdict disregards overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations,” the company said.
Cabot’s attorneys indicated in court on Thursday that they will move to set aside the verdict because they said the plaintiffs’ attorney repeatedly mentioned excluded evidence and acted in other ways that prejudiced the jury against the company.
Cabot’s attorney Jeremy Mercer described it as a calculated effort “to throw skunks into the jury box.”
The families’ attorney Leslie Lewis rebutted that charge as she stood outside the courthouse, embracing the tearful plaintiffs and their supporters.
The jury “really listened,” she said. “Nothing untoward occurred with the presentation of the case. They followed the truth, they followed the facts.”
Mr. Ely referred to the size and sophistication of Cabot’s legal team as he reflected on his years-long pursuit that included periods when he represented himself after most of the original plaintiffs settled in 2012.
“There were six Goliaths in there,” he said, “and all I had was just a little pea stone.”
A state investigation that began in 2009 concluded that Cabot was responsible for contaminating 18 Dimock water supplies with high levels of methane and metals. Residents had complained of brown, fetid water that was so full of gas it would cause a lit match to burst into flame.
That drew the attention of federal regulators, the international press, celebrities, filmmakers and anti-fracking activists to the tiny community, which was described as a cautionary tale for other regions hoping to capitalize on advanced but invasive extraction technologies to release oil and gas from stubborn shale formations.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection barred Cabot from drilling new wells in a 9-square-mile section of the township in April 2010.
The prohibition still stands because regulators say the company has not yet met the terms of an agreement that requires Cabot to eliminate gas leaks from its wells and reduce methane concentrations in the affected water supplies to consistently low levels. The company also paid $4.6 million as part of the state settlement.
Much of the evidence the state used to justify those penalties was excluded from the Ely and Hubert case through pretrial rulings.
Laura Legere: email@example.com.
First Published March 10, 2016 2:48 PM