A family in Texas, including a four-year old, her parents and her grandfather, were severely burned when their water well ignited into a massive fireball after methane from nearby fracked wells contaminated their water supply, a newly filed lawsuit against EOG Resources and several related companies alleges.
Cody Murray, a 38-year old who previously worked in the oil and gas industry, suffered burns to his face, arms, neck and back that were so severe that he was left permanently disabled, no longer able to drive because the nerve damage has left him unable to grip steering wheels or other objects. Cody’s young daughter, who was over 20 feet away from the pump house when it ignited, suffered first and second degree burns, as did Jim Murray, Cody’s father.
The cause of the blast? Nearby fracked wells, the lawsuit alleges. “Rigorous scientific testing, including isotope testing, has conclusively demonstrated that the high-level methane contamination of the Murrays ’ water well resulted from natural gas drilling and extraction activities,” the complaint, filed in Dallas County, Texas earlier this month, states.
The family raised livestock and crops on their 160-acre ranch in Perrin, Texas, a tiny unincorporated town (population: 500) in Jack County, northwest of Forth Worth and atop the Barnett shale. The heavily-drilled county has been struck by a string of earthquakes since 2013.
The region also made headlines this summer when a research team from the University of Texas at Arlington announced that tests showed hundreds of water wells – 381 of the 550 wells tested – were contaminated by chemicals associated with fracking.
But while much of the water pollution associated with fracking is invisible — parts per million or per billion of highly toxic chemicals lacing water that otherwise looks safe — some of the most notorious incidents associated with fracking involve tap water lighting on fire, the result of flammable methane gas bubbles mixing with the water.
For the Murrays, the trouble began with a sputtering water hose. On August 2, 2014, Ashley Murray, Cody’s wife, noticed something odd as she filled a water trough for the family’s cattle — pressurized water was spitting out from the hose, spraying throughout the pump house built around the well. She cut the water off and went to get Cody. According to the complaint:
Cody’s dad, Jim, entered the doorway to the pump house and switched the water on. At the flip of the switch, Cody heard a ‘whooshing’ sound , which he instantly recognized from his work in the oil and gas industry, and instinctively picked his father up and physically threw him back and away from the entryway to the pump house. In that instant, a giant fireball erupted from the pump house, burning Cody and Jim, who were at the entrance to the pump house, as well as Ashley and A.M. [the four-year old], who were approximately twenty feet away. Cody and A.M. were air-lifted to Parkland Hospital, while Jim was transported to Palo Pinto General Hospital.
The suspected source of the methane in the water? Two gas wells drilled by EOG Resources roughly 1,000 feet away from the Murrays’ water well.
The Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, later cited EOG for “discrepancies” in legally-required records for the wells’ cement casings and the agency’s investigation into the fireball is still underway, according to the complaint.
The Murray’s lawsuit, which seeks over $1 million dollars to compensate the family for their medical expenses, Cody’s disability and resulting lost job, and the loss of their farm’s water supply, is one of a growing number of legal cases surrounding fracking.
“This is a potentially landmark case,” Christopher Hamilton, the attorney representing the Murrays told ThinkProgress, explaining that the type of isotopic analysis connecting methane in the Murray’s water to fracking could help plaintiffs nationwide prove that the gas in their water came from the fracked wells and was not the kind of gas that occurs naturally at the relatively shallow depths where water wells are drilled.
Nationwide, litigation surrounding fracking’s impacts has continued to rise even as the number of rigs drilling for oil and gas has shrunk with the fall of oil prices.
Over 150 lawsuits related to fracking— including dozens stemming from water pollution or explosions — had been filed as of June 2014, according to a review conducted by Fulbright and Jaworski, one of largest law firms in the US.
Many of those cases were still in early stages of litigation or had reached settlements whose terms were not public.
“As of the date of this White Paper, the authors have not located any judgment against a well operator, drilling contractor, or service company for contamination of groundwater resulting from hydraulic fracturing,” the review concluded, although a few cases had progressed to the point of a jury verdict for millions of dollars which was then appealed prior to a final judgment.
The Murrays’ case includes a claim that is increasingly used to pursue drillers who harm those living near fracked wells: nuisance law.
“Nuisance affects the whole fracking debate in a lot of ways,” Dan Raichel, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told E&E last year. “In a colloquial sense, it’s pretty clear that fracking is a nuisance in a lot of these communities.”
Long before federal laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were written, nuisance law were used by those harmed by contaminated air and water to seek compensation from polluters, with the earliest cases dating back to English courts in the 1600’s.
Nuisance claims have drawn renewed attention from lawyers pursuing lawsuits against drillers in part because the legal questions focus less on the mechanics of precisely how each specific harm happened and more on the impact that the defendant’s activities overall have had — and that can include not only water pollution but also things like noise and noxious smells.
“You avoid some of the really difficult causation issues,” that otherwise make it challenging to tie specific damages to specific actions, Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg last year. “You could show an interference with use of and enjoyment of one’s property without conclusively demonstrating that a gas company for example had contaminated a particular water well.”
But the Murrays’ lawyers also apparently intend to tackle the issue of causation head on. “The activities of Fairway and EOG are the only possible sources of the contamination,” the complaint asserts. “The high levels of methane in the Murrays’ well were not ‘naturally occurring.’”
While the Murrays’ scientific evidence was not described in depth in the complaint, investigators have been working for years to find tools to allow them to determine reliably whether methane came from a shale well. EPA‘s tests of the isotopic signature of methane in high-profile cases like Dimock and Pavillion have come under fire from the oil and gas industry, which argued that the test results were too imprecise to be reliable or that sampling was done improperly.
But the hunt for tracers has continued. Last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, focused on noble gasses like helium, neon and argon as potential tracers for shale gas, finding isotopic “signatures” that allowed them to connect the gas to specific sources.
As scientific investigators, lawyers and judges sift through evidence, trying to determine precisely how each suspected incident occurred, the human toll from drilling-related accidents and explosions is continuing to rise.
On Tuesday, an explosion at an oil well in Ward County, Texas – about a 4 hour drive from the Murray’s ranch in Perrin – injured two oilfield workers, leaving one hospitalized in critical condition. An investigation into that blaze is now underway.