Two unlikely announcements last week added to the growing chorus of concern regarding the impacts that fracking can have on local communities. The first came from a jury in Texas last Tuesday, which by a 5-to-1 vote sided with a middle-class north-Texas family, the Parrs, in publicly declaring that fracking activities near the Parrs' ranch by the Aruba Petroleum corporation constituted a private nuisance, and awarding nearly three million dollars in damages.
What's unusual about this case, you ask? For starters, it's not that the jury concluded that fracking was a nuisance. For those who aren't acquainted with the technical legal definition of a “private nuisance,” it is an “unreasonable“ interference with another person's "enjoyment or use“ of their property, without an actual physical trespass. If this seems a little dry and abstract, nuisances essentially are things that your neighbor can do on their property to make your life miserable without actually ever stepping foot on yours. Classic examples include the release of foul odors, noxious gases, smoke, and dust into the neighborhood or the creation of loud noises, vibrations, or excessive light—most often from industrial activities.
Needless to say, as any one of the millions of Americans living next to a frack well can tell you, fracking exhibits all of these qualities, and the Parrs, who had more than 20 wells drilled within a mile of their ranch, had a front-row seat to all of them. In addition to the sheer annoyance of becoming suddenly surrounded by industrial activities, the Parrs also alleged physical harm as well—sickness and nosebleeds, rashes and sores that refused to heal, and blood tests that revealed toxic chemicals in their bodies that are often found in petroleum products.
Hydraulic Fracturing Activities, photo by USGS.
As such, the real surprise of this case is not that the Parrs were able to show that fracking in their neighborhood was a nuisance, but rather that the case went to a jury at all. As the Hallowich case demonstrates, fracking companies for years have settled just about every case alleging physical or environmental harm from fracking—all of which are secret and sealed from the public. This allows fracking companies to stick by the increasingly less plausible claim that there never has been a confirmed case of fracking contaminating a water supply or harming human health. Thus, the Parr family case is maybe the first, but probably not the last, in which a jury has actually had the chance to weigh in on the issue.
But it’s not just a Texas jury making unexpected pronouncements on fracking. Last week, former executive and 31-year veteran of the Mobil Oil Corporation, Louis Allstadt, also made headlines when he announced that “making fracking safe is simply not possible, not with the current technology, or with the inadequate regulations being proposed." Allstadt, who was once head of Mobil's oil and gas drilling operations in the Western Hemisphere, has now taken a public stand against fracking, stressing not only the environmental risks of the technique, but also unavoidable community impacts such as truck traffic and noise. Allstadt also made reference to new findings about methane emissions from fracking wells, which a recent independent scientific study reported to be about 1,000 times greater than EPA estimates at some wells.
Naturally, spokespeople for the now-merged corporate giant, ExxonMobil have moved to discredit the opinions of their once top executive, but the company is in an odd posture given their own Chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson, has joined a lawsuit to prevent fracking infrastructure from being built in his own neighborhood. Specifically, Mr. Tillerson and others are fighting against the construction of a water tower that “will sell water to oil and gas explorers for fracking shale formations leading to traffic with heavy trucks" because it will “creat[e] a noise nuisance and traffic hazards" (emphasis added).
Other groups recently raising concerns about fracking are perhaps more predictable. Within the past month, two new studies were released—one out of the University of Texas and the other published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives—highlighting the growing body of evidence that fracking may pose risks to human health and underscoring the vital need for scientific examination of these largely unstudied potential health effects.
All in all, the lid that industry has attempted to put on the true impacts of fracking is beginning to come off in a big way, so don't be surprised if you hear more surprising voices speaking out about fracking in the near future.