$3 Million Awarded to Texas Family Harmed by Fracking Toxins
by Katie Weatherford, 6/2/2014
A recent court decision out of Dallas County, Texas has made national headlines after a jury awarded $2.925 million in damages to a family harmed by Aruba Petroleum's intentional release of air toxins from fracking wells located near the family's home.
The case is precedent-setting in that it is one of the first successful lawsuits in the U.S. where people sickened by toxic emissions from nearby oil and gas production operations have prevailed. Although Aruba has already challenged the verdict, if the jury’s decision stands, it will serve to bolster lawsuits across the nation filed by those who have been harmed by pollution from oil and gas operations in their communities.
In early 2010, the Parr family and other nearby residents began smelling noxious chemical odors from area natural gas facilities, which were reported to the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on multiple occasions. After TCEQ’s initial inspection of one Aruba facility, conducted in response to the Parr’s first complaint, TCEQ closed the case after finding no violations. But several later inspections found that Aruba had failed to prevent discharges of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) onto neighboring properties. These conclusions were later confirmed by air samples collected from one of the facilities, which revealed extremely high levels of VOCs being emitted from the facility.
In March 2011, the Parrs filed suit against Aruba and ten other oil and gas production companies operating close to their ranch. The complaint alleged that the defendants’ actions placed the family “under constant, perpetual, and inescapable assault of Defendants’ releases, spills, emissions, and discharges of hazardous gases, chemicals, and industrial/hazardous wastes.”
Aruba argued in defense that there is no direct connection between the harmful emissions and its natural gas operations. Aruba operates 22 out of over 100 wells that have been drilled within two miles of the Parrs' ranch, so the company argued that the emissions could have come from any of its competitors’ wells. Aruba also argued that its operation fully complied with Texas laws and regulations, even though TCEQ has imposed multiple fines against the company for violations, and the state attorney general has taken action against the company for operating without a valid air emissions permit.
But the jury did not buy into Aruba’s defense. To the contrary, it rendered a 5-1 verdict for the Parr family based on evidence that Aruba’s conduct constituted a “private nuisance,” which not only harmed the Parrs' health but caused the value of their ranch to decline by $275,000. In response, the jury awarded $2.925 million to the family.
TCEQ’s chairman says the agency has no intention of taking direct action in response to the lawsuit and will continue to enforce regulations currently in place. But former TCEQ commissioner Larry Soward indicated that any effort by TCEQ to adopt more protective regulations is extremely unlikely, noting “TCEQ is so strongly set in their belief that emissions from oil and gas have little or no effect on air quality and human health that they will simply ignore this case.” He added, “They are very pro-industry and they will not change their position because of some jury award.”
While the Parrs' lawsuit against Aruba represents a major victory in the fight to hold companies accountable for the pollution associated with the boom in oil and natural gas production, it is uncertain whether that victory will stand. Aruba Petroleum has already filed a motion with the court asking the judge presiding over the matter to overturn the jury’s verdict, with arguments set for June. The Parr family and many others like them across the U.S. can only hope that the judge supports the jury’s decision.
This post has been updated since its original publication date.