A New York law firm that won a major settlement for World Trade Center rescue workers is representing residents of Colorado's Western Slope who say their health has been impacted by the boom in oil and gas operations in the region.
The law firm Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates, along with the Aspen firm Thomas Genshaft, filed its first Western Slope lawsuit on Thursday, and attorneys say more will likely be forthcoming, including a possible class-action lawsuit.
The firms announced the first lawsuit in a press conference on the steps of the state capitol in Denver.
"We basically wanted to let them know that we're establishing a lawsuit, that we're very serious about it and that we are going to prosecute the case strongly," said Corey Zurbuch, an attorney with Thomas Genshaft.
Attorneys said they had other clients in line and were pursuing a class-action lawsuit intended to force the industry to create a pool of funds for health monitoring in Colorado. That could include the community of Battlement Mesa, where 200 wells are slated to be drilled inside the boundaries of a subdivision.
Attorney Marc Bern said his firm was also in talks with residents of Durango, Colorado.
"Hopefully we can level the playing field a little when it comes to these types of cases against these giant corporations," he said.
The attorneys filed the first lawsuit on behalf of Bill and Beth Strudley and their two children. The family, which lives near the town of Silt, claimed drilling operations near their home by Denver-based Antero Resources made them sick through either air and water contamination.
"We talked to family after family that remarkably tell the same story," Zurbuch said. "They don't feel they've been provided any good information about health impacts prior to drilling. The industry continues to deny any adverse health impacts... If you spend any time on the Western Slope in the gas fields, you hear the same story."
Antero has declined to comment, but it has previously denied their operations have harmed the family. Tests by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found no indication of chemicals from the gas industry in their water well.
"We think that those tests are bogus, to be very honest," said Bern, who said independent testing found air and water contamination.
In the lawsuit filed in Denver District Court, the Strudleys claim Antero began drilling near their home in August 2010 and released a toxic mix of chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide, into the air and ground water. The contamination forced the family to flee, the lawsuit says.
Bern said the contamination may have come from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a controversial process that injects chemicals underground to make it easier to reach gas deposits.
Federal regulations don't require energy companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the process.
"They operate in complete secrecy with regard to the chemicals they're using and all we see are the effects," Zurbuch said. "It's very difficult to test for something when you don't know what you're testing for."
Legislators, including Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., have long pressed for legislation that would require disclosure. The industry has opposed it, saying fracking is safe and its mixes of fracking chemicals are proprietary.
Lawmakers are currently considering a new version of the FRAC Act and the related BREATHE Act, which would ensure the industry is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act.
"Both are founded on the mistaken belief that major federal environmental laws somehow don't apply to America's energy producers," the pro-industry group Energy In Depth said a statement on its Website on Friday. "In fact, they do. They always have. And it's a pretty safe bet they always will."
The Strudleys were advised by their attorneys to not speak to reporters about the lawsuit, but they previously told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent newspaper that one of their sons developed strange rashes and nosebleeds and suffered blackouts after the drilling began, and that other family members experienced similar symptoms.
After the drilling began, the family hoisted a large sign on their property, which industry vehicles passed everyday, saying "Antero is going to poison our water!!!!"
The firm Napoli Bern Ripka has a growing list of clients who complained about suffering health effects from gas drilling and fracking. Their clients include residents in Dimock, Pennsylvania, who were depicted in the documentary Gasland.
The firm also represented more than 10,000 firefighters, police and rescue workers at the World Trade Center site who won an $800 million settlement over what they said was exposure to toxic dust at the cleanup following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
As gas drilling has expanded across the country, and awareness of issues like fracking have increased, Bern said, complaints from landowners are on the rise. He said is firm is looking at clients in Wyoming, North Dakota, Arkansas and other areas where gas drilling is prevalent.
"It's all over the country," he said. "People are getting sick. Properties are damaged. Water is being damaged. Natural resources are being harmed. We believe that it's the fault of gas drilling operations."
David Frey writes at www.davidmfrey.com.
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