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Two lawsuits contend groundwater in Barnett Shale contaminated by drilling

12/15/2010 9:24 PM

12/15/2010 9:47 PM

Two federal lawsuits filed Wednesday contend that Barnett Shale natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing contaminated property owners' private water wells, leaving them without water fit for drinking or other uses.

Well-known Dallas attorney Windle Turley, who filed the lawsuits, issued a statement saying, "The full scope of groundwater contamination in the Barnett Shale will not be known for some time; however it appears to be extensive.

"We believe that hundreds and more likely thousands of property owners have already had the water beneath their surface essentially ruined as a result of nearby drilling and fracking [hydraulic fracturing] in the Barnett Shale," he said. "This is why these damage lawsuits are being filed."

The lawsuits come on the heels of a claim by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Fort Worth-based Range Resources, a large natural gas and oil producer, is responsible for methane contamination in two private residential water wells in Parker County. Methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Range has denied the allegations.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has set a Jan. 10 hearing on the issue.

Turley's lawsuit on behalf of property owner Grace Mitchell against Chesapeake Energy and Encana Oil & Gas contends that she can no longer use water from her well "for consumption, bathing or washing clothes" because of its odor and testing results that showed it was contaminated with chemicals. Mitchell claims drilling and fracking of gas wells contaminated the groundwater that supplies her water well.

The lawsuit says her property is in Johnson County, but Turley assistant Tyann Trevino said it is in south Tarrant County.

Brian Murnahan, spokesman for Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake, in an e-mail response to the Star-Telegram, said the company has "no record of her [Mitchell] ever attempting to contact us with concerns about her water quality, so we have no information to assess her claims at this time." Murnahan said the company has not been served a copy of the lawsuit.

"With more than 2,000 wells drilled in the Barnett Shale formation, Chesapeake has established an outstanding record of encasing wells and protecting the region's groundwater," Murnahan said. "The press release that accompanied this lawsuit suggests that there is widespread water contamination in the Barnett Shale. That is totally false. It is irresponsible for lawyers to opportunistically prey on people's fears and misconceptions to encourage baseless lawsuits."

An Encana spokesman declined comment on Mitchell's lawsuit, saying it has not yet been served a copy.

Turley also filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy, the largest gas producer in the Barnett Shale.

The suit was filed on behalf of a Denton County couple, Doug and Diana Harris, who contend that "soon after" Devon "commenced drilling and fracking operations" their well water became "polluted with a gray sediment," leaving it unfit for drinking, bathing or washing clothes. The Harrises said they drilled another water well, "but the same gray contaminated substance continues to be found in the second well's water."

The couple said testing results showed the presence of contaminants "contained in a commercial compound called 'bentonite' used in drilling mud."

Devon spokeswoman Alesha Leemaster said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Both lawsuits are in the court of U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay of Dallas.

Another lawsuit filed by Turley's firm in June, on behalf of Jim and Linda Scoma of Johnson County, also contends that their water well was harmed by drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities of Chesapeake Energy, which has disputed the allegations.

That case is pending in the court of U.S. District Judge David Godbey of Dallas.

Jack Z. Smith, 817-390-7724

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