A Texas jury has awarded nearly $3 million to a family for illnesses they suffered from exposure to contaminated groundwater, solid toxic waste and airborne chemicals generated by natural gas fracking operations surrounding their 40-acre ranch, attorneys on the case said.
The verdict, delivered Tuesday, is seen as a landmark decision for opponents of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing — a process in which high-pressure fluid is injected into the ground to fracture shale rock and release natural gas.
“We hope this verdict will prompt companies that engage in fracking operations to take responsibility for the health problems and property damage caused by their activities,” said David Matthews of Matthews & Associates, one of the law firms that represented the family, in an email statement to Al Jazeera.
Up to 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, and they include known human carcinogens, according to a press release from Matthews & Associates. Studies indicate that only 30 to 50 percent of those fluids are recovered, with the rest of the nonbiodegradable chemicals left in the ground.
Plaintiffs Bob and Lisa Parr sued Texas-based Aruba Petroleum in 2011 over its fracking activities that they said polluted their 40-acre ranch, lowered their property’s value and sickened their family, pets and livestock.
The decision found that Aruba Petroleum, which has been drilling in the area for several years, intentionally created a private nuisance, according to Law360, a LexisNexis news source that covers high-stakes litigation. Almost as soon as Aruba began drilling near their home, the family, pets and livestock started to become ill.
“Robert and Lisa Parr, along with their young daughter, began experiencing health problems in 2009, after Aruba began drilling the first of 20 wells which the company operates less than two miles from the Parrs’ ranch near Decatur, Texas — about 45 miles northwest of Fort Worth,” Matthews & Associates said in a press release.
Fred Stern, a spokesman for Aruba Petroleum, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that "the facts of the case and the law as applied to those facts do not support the verdict. Natural gas development has long been prevalent in Wise County with hundreds of wells drilled and currently operated by dozens of companies. Aruba is just one of those operators."
He added: "We contended the plaintiffs were neither harmed by the presence of our drilling operations nor was the value of their property diminished because of our natural gas development."
Air quality tests conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found hazardous air that could lead to respiratory and neurological risks within a quarter mile of the Parrs’ home, according to Matthews & Associates.
The Parr family reported symptoms such as migraines, rashes, dizziness, nausea and chronic nosebleeds. One night, their daughter woke up in the middle of the night covered in blood, attorneys said, presumably from a bad nosebleed.
Living near fracking sites may increase the risk of some birth defects by as much as 30 percent, a January study by the Colorado School of Public Health said. The study was based on evidence gathered from heavily drilled rural Colorado, which has some of the highest densities of oil and gas wells in the United States.
Another study, by the University of Missouri School of Medicine, showed that fracking fluids contain chemicals that can disrupt the functioning of human hormones and lead to a greater chance of infertility, cancer and other health problems.
Fracking activity has accelerated under the administration of President Barack Obama, with supporters saying it could provide a means to greater energy independence, create jobs and boost the U.S. economy.
The Barnett Shale region surrounding the Dallas-Fort Worth area is currently home to at least 12,000 gas wells, according to the environmentalist nonprofit organization EarthJustice. Industry experts have said drilling in the region has created thousands of jobs and generated tens of billions of dollars in investment.
Many Texas residents have complained about fracking activities being too close to home. Heavily drilled Denton, Texas — about 30 miles east of the Parr family — has passed fracking moratoriums, and residents have pushed for a complete ban. They said they spent years trying to make fracking compatible with a healthy city, but found it impossible.
“These companies make millions of dollars at the expense of people’s health and property without any financial benefit to the actual buys of natural gas. In fact, natural gas prices are on the rise,” Matthews said.