Texas Jury Awards Family $3 Million in Fracking Case

Thursday, 24 Apr 2014 05:49 PM

By Todd Beamon

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A Texas jury has awarded nearly $3 million to a ranching family who argued that spills and emissions from a huge gas-drilling company's fracking operations had contaminated their 40-acre ranch over three years.

The six-member jury in Dallas on Tuesday awarded $2.95 million to Robert and Lisa Parr, whose farm is located in Decatur, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth. The verdict is considered the first in the nation by legal experts on hydraulic fracturing — or fracking, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The process involves pumping a pressurized fluid into the rocks to create fractures that would release gas. The couple's property was located within the huge Barnett Shale formation, where the technology was first used as early as 1991. Fracking activity began to peak in the area around 2008.

In 2011, the Parrs sued Aruba Petroleum Inc., a large natural gas drilling company based in Plano. They claimed that the pollution from the drilling sickened their family — as well as killed their pets and livestock, and forced them to leave their home for months.

Robert Parr, 53, is a stonemason and cattle rancher, the Times reports. He has lived on the property since 2001. His wife, Lisa, 45, is a stay-at-home mother. They have an 11-year-old daughter. The farm has since been put up for sale.

"I am just overwhelmed," Lisa Parr told the Times in an interview. "I feel like I am just this little bitty girl, this little family who just beat the biggest, most powerful industry in the world."

Aruba Petroleum said that it had operated within safe and legal guidelines. Attorneys argued during the trial that more than 100 natural gas wells were located within two miles of the Parr’s property, the Dallas Morning News reports.

“It was arbitrary,” Ben Barron, an Aruba attorney, told the newspaper. "How do you determine which well caused what, if any, damages?"

The company said in a statement to the Times: "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."

Aruba said that it would appeal the jury's decision, which did not find that the company had acted with malice, the Times reports.

In the lawsuit, the Parrs argued that they and their daughter suffered a wide range of maladies since 2008. They included asthma, nausea, nose bleeds, ear ringing and depression.

They noted that a calf had been born "dwarfed," the Morning News reports, and other pets and livestock had died.

Environmentalists hailed the ruling.

"Six regular people who knew nothing about fracking were presented with the facts and awarded the victims $3 million," Sharon Wilson of Earthworks, an advocacy group with offices in Texas, wrote in a blog post quoted by the Morning News. "It’s going to be hard to spin that."

Larry Nettles, a Houston attorney not involved in the lawsuit, told the Morning News that oil and gas companies would take some pause from the verdict, but that many would continue working hard to address local concerns.

"I don’t think this is going to be damaging to the industry," Nettles said. "But it is a warning to operators they need to exercise caution when running operations near homesteads."

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