CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thirteen families in tiny Lenox Township in northeastern Pennsylvania are suing Southwestern Energy, alleging that in drilling for Marcellus Shale, the company contaminated their water supply and made them sick.
The lawsuit is one of the first in the nation linking hydraulic fracturing -- the process used to extract the natural gas -- to tainted groundwater. But legal experts say it won't be the last.
Drilling underground for the abundant natural gas supply in the Marcellus rock formation that stretches from New York to West Virginia is considered by some to be the answer to the nation's energy woes. It's also proving to be a boon to the economy, creating thousands of jobs in rural communities where factories have long since closed up shop.
But what's happening under the surface is a concern for residents and environmentalists alike.
"We're seeing this pretty violent act, blasting apart a formation, explosive by its very nature" said Julia LeMense, an environmental attorney at the New York firm, Weitz & Luxenberg. "There's the possibility of creating problems that are unforeseen. A lot can happen out of sight."
Hydraulic fracturing -- also known as fracking -- presents one of the biggest potential problems. Millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and other chemicals, are pumped into the ground to split the rock and extract the natural gas.
In the Southwestern case, the families claim that the fracking fluid leaked into the water supply, causing neurological problems. The energy company told The Associated Press there were no problems with the well.
It's a case that sounds straight out of "Erin Brockovich," the movie based on an unemployed mother's efforts to bring down a power company accused of polluting a California town's water supply. In fact, the film's namesake herself is involved in the Marcellus Shale controversy. LeMense's firm has a partnership with Brockovich, who in her role as a consumer advocate, is often contacted by residents first.
"People are concerned, and we have a discussion with them about what we know," LeMense said. "I think it's educational for people to understand they are not alone."
LeMense has also spoken to community groups in West Virginia where gas drilling is relatively new about potential risks and problems.
What they are concerned about, LeMense said, are negative health effects they attribute to water pollution. "A lot of these chemicals have the capacity to cause cancer," she said.
More frequently she hears complaints of respiratory problems and neurological issues such as numbness in the hands and feet, dropping things and becoming more forgetful.
The contention among environmentalists, some of whom have formed anti-fracking groups with celebrity spokespeople, is that oil companies won't disclose what chemicals they mix with the water.
Industry experts disagree.
"What the industry uses in fracking fluids, the DEP, at least in Pennsylvania, has been publishing for months," said Joseph Reinhart, an attorney with BCCZ in Pittsburgh who represents oil companies. "We're talking about small percentages of this stuff. And different operators might mix it up in different ways, but what is used is out there. A lot of information is out there."
Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, says many wells have been contaminated long before drillers came to town. It is, after all, an area where coal mining has dominated for decades. In fact, Klaber says, the industry has a "no questions asked" policy to replace a water supply when testing shows any sign of contamination, regardless of its cause.
"Our best practices go beyond the regulations," she said.
In addition to health and environmental concerns, plaintiff lawyers are also tracking cases where workers or residents are injured in the process of drilling into the Marcellus Shale. By its very nature, the work is dangerous and accidents and explosions have already occurred.
"There are large, heavy pieces of machinery, there's gas and liquid at high pressures, at high temperatures," said Michael Rosenzweig, a partner at Edgar Snyder & Associates in Pittsburgh. "You're dealing with toxic fluids. Accidents are going to happen."
Rosenzweig's firm has begun running advertisements seeking clients who have been injured in Marcellus Shale accidents. Some of the cases include motorists who were injured in car accidents allegedly caused by damage to the road from the big rigs used to transport equipment to the wells and workers who sustained injuries when a tank on one site exploded.
"You don't have a single person responsible for safety," Rosenzweig said, referring to the various contractors doing work on any given well site. "I'm a firm believer that when you have too many cooks, that's when you spoil the broth."
Because the industry is still in its early stages in terms of Marcellus drilling, industry experts say they are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of workers and residents, but that like in any business, accidents inevitably happen.
"Nobody wants anything bad to happen with Marcellus Shale," said Joel Bolstein, an attorney with Fox Rothschild in Philadephia who works with companies treating backwater. "It's getting top priority with the DEP in terms of enforcement. There's also a certain amount of self-policing going on."
Plaintiff lawyers say there aren't enough regulations in the industry and say sometimes bringing lawsuits is the only way to enact change.
"People have recourse through the court system," Rosenzweig said. "The tort system is really the last rail of regulation. If the government doesn't regulate, the law provides for safety. If they're hit with enough lawsuits, they'll change."[gallery]