A Wise County family, and the oil and gas production company they say made them sick and drove them from their home, are finally getting their day in court – in downtown Dallas.
The lawsuit, Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, started with jury selection Monday. A jury of four men and three women was seated Tuesday and opening statements were presented in Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 5, presided over by Judge Mark Greenberg, on the fifth floor of the George L. Allen Sr. Courts Building just across from JFK Memorial Plaza.
It’s being billed as the “first fracking lawsuit in the history of the United States” – but there’s much more than the process of fracturing natural gas wells at issue in what promises to be a lengthy and technical trial.
Robert Parr, wife Lisa and their daughter, Emma, say they started experiencing a variety of health problems in 2009, after Aruba began drilling the first of 20 wells the company operates within a mile-and-a-half of the Parrs’ home on Star Shell Road, off U.S. 380 northeast of Decatur.
The symptoms – nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory and neurological problems – sent Lisa Parr, and eventually her daughter and husband, to a succession of doctors. An environmental medicine specialist recommended they keep a journal to try and tie the onset of symptoms to specific events in their environment.
The journal started in January 2010. On their doctor’s recommendation, they moved out of their house into Parr’s office in Denton that August and lived there most of the time until the following March.
That’s when they filed suit against Aruba and eight other oil companies.
The lawsuit alleges the family’s health problems were caused by toxic gases venting from the site during and after completion of the wells, as well as the exhaust produced by heavy equipment during site preparation, drilling and hydraulic fracturing – fracking.
It also says spills, loud noises and the bright lights used during around-the-clock drilling – operations that went on almost continuously for about two-and-a-half years -caused their mental anguish and reduced the market value of their home.
The case took significantly longer than most other lawsuits to make it to trial, and ultimately, the other defendants were dismissed or settled out of court, leaving only Aruba to defend the suit.
The Parrs’ lead attorney, Brad Gilde of Houston, opened with a videotaped deposition of John Goforth, vice president and manager of Aruba’s Wise County operations.
Goforth, who said he reviewed close to 8,000 pages of documents on the wells prior to testifying, answered questions for about 40 minutes, mostly on the company’s practices and safety policies. After that 40-minute video, a 12-minute cut of the video edited by Aruba’s attorneys was played in lieu of cross-examination before Robert Parr took the stand.
Parr testified the rest of Wednesday. Late that afternoon, Aruba attorney Ben Barron began cross-examination, which continued through Thursday morning before Los Angeles environmental scientist Dr. Paul Rosenfeld was called.
Rosenfeld was questioned by Gilde, then cross-examined by Aruba attorney Michael Mazzone. He was still on the stand at the end of the day and will return Monday when the trial resumes.
No testimony was heard on Friday.
BACK AND FORTH
Goforth, a veteran of the oil and gas business, told Gilde his company’s policy on leaks was, “If you see a leak, fix it.”
He said the company does not own an infrared camera – used to detect leaks not visible to the eye – but they do hire a contractor at times to inspect their sites for leaks.
Gilde pointed out on a video of Aruba’s pad sites that several valve assemblies had been wrapped in trash bags and duct tape. Goforth’s response was, “Whatever works in the real world, you do what you have to do and keep going.” He said the wrapping was probably to prevent the valves from freezing.
During cross-examination, he said the drilling, dozing and venting activities seen at the Aruba wells were similar to those seen at all gas wells in the Barnett Shale.
Parr’s testimony began with his youth and background as someone with a deep love for the outdoors – hunting, fishing, working outside and calf-roping. Parr owns a landscape company and a self-storage facility, and he also raises cattle.
He bought the 40-acre place in Wise County, near Denton Creek, in 2000 and built the house there in 2002. He and Lisa were married on the back steps in May 2008.
“That’s sacred ground,” he said. “We have a lot of memories there.”
But the property, he said, is “bottom land.” Heavier-than-air vapors from the surrounding gas wells naturally settle in the low-lying area.
Under Gilde’s questioning, he testified about his symptoms and those of his wife and daughter, the treatment they sought and the air-quality testing they had done on the property – both by a private contractor and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
A series of videos made by a neighbor, Tim Ruggerio, showed drilling and fracking operations going on day and night. The Ruggerios have since sold their property and moved to Pilot Point.
The videos also showed flares, visible emissions and apparent leaks from tanks – all within a few hundred yards of the Parr house.
Parr referred to the family’s journal to refresh his memory on dates.
“On July 25, 2010, they were doing a mini-frack [on a nearby well],” he said. “Lisa got sick, I got sick, and we called the TCEQ and the inspector got sick.”
“On Feb. 16, 2010, a neighbor called about a drilling mud spill and wanted me to come on her property,” he said. Part of that spill, from Aruba wells 7H and 8H, was captured on video.
“On Feb. 19, Lisa was coughing and threw up. It persisted for several days.”
The journal details nosebleeds experienced by all three family members, including times when their daughter would wake up in the middle of the night, covered in blood.
“We smelled the odors from natural gas activities all the time,” he said. “It’s disheartening, scary. It makes you feel your mortality.”
He also viewed and commented on 14 videos, most made by Ruggerio.
During cross-examination, Barron’s questioning focused on the value of the house and property, which has been on the market for almost two years at $695,000. He touched on the fact that Parr continued to bale hay and raise cattle on the property and sold those cattle for meat.
He also hammered home the point that numerous wells near the property were drilled and are operated by other companies, including Encana and Burlington Resources.
“Is there any force field around those 70 other non-Aruba wells that prevents these emissions from coming on your land?” he asked. He asserted that “it’s not just Aruba, but other operations around your property that are causing your medical problems.”
But Parr stuck to his guns, insisting the problems did not start until Aruba started drilling. Most of the attention focused on three Aruba wells: Wright 6H, which is 791 feet from the Parr property, and 7H and 8H, which are both on the same pad 1,964 feet from the Parrs’ property.
Thursday morning, Barron focused on Parr’s health over the past 20 years. He also pointed out that Parr had sold a pipeline easement to Aruba for $7,500 in 2009, then sought to impeach the reliability of the non-traditional medical treatment the Parrs received at Environmental Health Center of Dallas.
Gilde questioned Parr briefly after Barron finished, re-establishing the claim that Aruba wells were responsible for the Parrs’ health problems and expanding on the medical care they received.
After lunch Thursday, Rosenfeld took the stand, likely the first of several environmental experts who will deliver evidence for both sides.
Under Gilde’s questioning, he established his credentials and testified about extensive air quality testing done on the property. He went into the science of the various gases collected on the Parrs’ property, their odors, vapor densities and other characteristics.
He said his testing revealed the highest concentration of chemicals in 2009, with the air quality improving slightly each of the next two years.
“When you first drill a well, a lot of condensate comes out,” he said. “That diminishes over time. These wells typically are really productive at first, and they do all they can to stimulate production. Then it tapers off.”
His report showed air quality models made around the Parrs’ house for all three years, based on 44 tests conducted by the TCEQ within a quarter-mile of the Parrs’ house.
“The hazard index was above 1 for both respiratory and neurological risks,” he said. “According to the EPA, you’re not supposed to live there.”
When Mazzone took over late in the day, he called into question Rosenfeld’s use of terms like “do the right thing” and “be cool” with regard to how gas producers should operate.
He also questioned Rosenfeld’s use of the word “conservative” in his modeling of emissions, noting he had changed the acceptable standard from 33.3 pounds of VOCs per barrel of liquid to between 9 and 16 pounds in a later report.
“In fact, the emission factor you used in the 2011 affidavit was off by almost three times,” Mazzone said. “You called 33 ‘conservative’ even though later you dropped it down to 9 to 16.”
Rosenfeld pointed out that more research had been done, referring to Wise County as “the most heavily fracked and studied area in Texas.”
“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) did a very thorough estimate of VOCs in Wise County,” he said. “They came up with newly-generated VOC data that was published in 2012. I used the best available number I had at that time.
“They refined the numbers by doing more investigation.”
Finally, Mazzone pointed out that Rosenfeld had never worked a day in the oil and gas industry, yet felt qualified to comment and draw the conclusion that valves and fittings on the Aruba sites he visited appeared to be new – as if they had been replaced just prior to the site visit.
He reiterated that many of the well sites around the Parr property were not Aruba sites.
“Of the 35 sites, 24 were not Aruba sites,” he said. “Encana operated more natural gas wells within two miles of the Parr property than any other operator.”
Mazzone likely will still question Rosenfeld for a few more hours on Monday morning, when the trial is scheduled to resume.
NOTE: This story recounts just a few highlights from roughly 13 to 14 hours of testimony during the first two days of what may be a 15- or 20-day trial. Many more witnesses remain to be called, and many facts have not yet been brought to light. The Messenger will continue to monitor this ongoing trial.