By Jon Hurdle
DIMOCK, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Residents of a small rural Pennsylvania town sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp on Friday, claiming the company's natural-gas drilling has contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals, caused sickness and reduced their property values.
The lawsuit accuses the company of violating state environmental laws by allowing drilling chemicals to escape from gas wells, where they are used in a technique called hydraulic fracturing.
A Cabot spokesman said the company had not had time to study the lawsuit in detail but said Cabot was in full compliance with Pennsylvania's environmental laws and "disappointed" by the lawsuit.
"We don't see merit in these claims," Cabot spokesman Ken Komoroski said.
The company, like others in the industry, has argued that its drilling processes are safe because chemicals are heavily diluted and are injected into the ground through layers of steel and concrete thousands of feet below the aquifers that are used for drinking water.
The industry says there has never been a documented case of ground water contamination because of hydraulic fracturing.
The case is one of the first to confront the industry over the technique, which critics claim pollutes aquifers with chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious illnesses.
Cabot's drilling allowed methane to escape into private water wells and in two cases caused wellhead explosions due to a gas build-up, the 15 families in the lawsuit claim.
Pat Farnelli, 46, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told reporters on Friday that some of her eight children suffered stomach cramps after drinking water from the family's well, which is a few hundred yards from a gas well. She ruled out water-borne bacteria because boiling the water didn't help.
'WE WANT JUSTICE'
The suit is the culmination of complaints by residents of the northeastern Pennsylvania community where Cabot has drilled dozens of gas wells in its efforts to develop the Marcellus Shale, a massive gas formation that underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states.
"These releases, spills and discharges caused the plaintiffs and their property to be exposed to such hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes," said the complaint.
The complaint says residents have suffered neurological, gastrointestinal and dermatological symptoms from exposure to tainted water. They also say they have had blood test results consistent with exposure to heavy metals.
Victoria Switzer, a plaintiff who lives about a mile from Carter's home, said she had joined the lawsuit because she had failed to get satisfaction from the state Department of Environmental Protection or her elected representatives.
"Lawyers were the last thing I wanted," she said. "We are not greedy people, we just want some justice."
The lawsuit accuses Cabot of negligence and says it has failed to restore residential water supplies disrupted by gas drilling. It seeks a permanent injunction to stop the drilling processes that are blamed for the contamination, as well as unspecified compensatory damages.
Residents of many gas-drilling areas in the United States say the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are contaminating ground water. However, they have been unable to prove that, in part because energy companies are not required to disclose the composition of their drilling fluids.
Gas deposits such as the Marcellus Shale offer the United States an opportunity to reduce dependence on overseas oil imports and reduce carbon emissions, advocates say. But development could slow if fracturing is shown to be environmentally damaging.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Michelle Nichols, Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky)