Judge: No proof gas drilling tainted well water

MARY ESCH, Associated Press

A federal judge has ruled against nine southern New York homeowners who claimed their drinking water was contaminated by a nearby natural gas well.

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled against nine southern New York homeowners who claimed their drinking water was contaminated by a nearby natural gas well.

U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa in Rochester decided the homeowners had failed to prove the silt and methane that befouled their water was caused by one of two gas wells drilled a half mile from their homes in 2010. The decision was filed on Dec. 17.

The homeowners had sought $2 billion in damages from Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp.

Bonnie Todd of Horseheads, one of the homeowners, said Monday she was unaware a decision had been made. New York City personal injury law firm Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, which represented the homeowners, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment. Nor did a spokesman for Anschutz.

The wells drilled in the Trenton-Black River sandstone formation in Chemung County, near the Pennsylvania border, weren't hydraulically fractured, or fracked, a technology that injects a well with chemically treated water and sand to fracture shale and release trapped gas.

The Cuomo administration announced a decision earlier this month to ban shale gas development using high-volume fracking, citing a lack of definitive studies of potential health risks.

According to court documents, Joseph Yarosz of the Department of Environmental Conservation inspected the two Anschutz wells in the town of Big Flats more than 50 times during construction. He testified in his deposition that Anschutz complied with all permit conditions.

After the first gas well was completed, several homeowners complained to the county health department about muddiness and methane in their water wells. Testing confirmed the water contained methane, the main component of natural gas. But experts hired by Anschutz said laboratory analysis demonstrated the methane in the water didn't originate in the geological formation nearly two miles deep that was tapped by the gas wells.

Linsa Collart of the DEC said the well water problems were more likely associated with seasonal low-water levels in an aquifer where shallow pockets of naturally occurring gas were known to occur.

The homeowners said their wells had never had problems before the Anschutz drilling. Joe Todd said his water had been free of sediment for 46 years, but after the first gas well was finished his water was cloudy with black sediment and methane.

Paul Rubin, a hydrologist hired by the homeowners, said the methane likely migrated from the gas wells through a network of bedrock fractures. But the judge dismissed Rubin's arguments as speculation, saying he failed to provide any scientific evidence to support his claims.

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