Two couples were awarded nearly $4.25 million on Thursday after a federal jury found one of the largest natural gas producers in Pennsylvania was responsible for the contamination of their well water, capping a six-year odyssey that turned their sleepy village into a battleground over the nation's shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing boom.
The verdict in Scranton came at the end of a bitter lawsuit pitting homeowners in Dimock against Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. The company, a prolific driller in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale formation, said it will appeal, accusing the jury of ignoring "overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations."
Dimock was the scene of the most highly publicized case of methane contamination to emerge from the early days of Pennsylvania's natural-gas drilling boom. State regulators blamed faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot for leaking combustible methane into Dimock's groundwater. Cabot claimed the methane was naturally occurring and said the problems in the water wells predated Cabot's arrival.
Dozens of plaintiffs settled with Cabot in 2012, but two families opted to take their claims to trial.
"They did something wrong. That was the whole point of getting it into the courtroom," one of the plaintiffs, Scott Ely, told reporters outside the courthouse.
Residents first reported problems in the wells in 2008. The water that came out of their faucets turned cloudy, foamy and discolored, and it smelled and tasted foul. Homeowners, all of whom had leased their land to Cabot, said the water made them sick with symptoms that included vomiting, dizziness and skin rashes.
A state investigation found that Cabot had allowed gas to escape into the region's groundwater supplies, contaminating at least 18 residential wells.
The plaintiffs' attorney called the verdict a warning shot that will resonate beyond the courtroom.
"Cabot doesn't care. Industry doesn't care. They're the big bucks. Their influence is wide and far. ... It's fine with me if industry takes a big fat hit," Leslie Lewis said.