Telling personal stories
The oil and gas boom has been underway for a number of years in many locations across North America, and there are now a lot of stories about individuals and families whose lives have been personally affected. This post is part of a regular weekly series of those stories on this blog to help you envision what could happen if drilling expands along the Beartooth Front.
You’ll know of today’s story if you’ve been following the news for the last week. It’s the story of the couple who won a $2.9 million judgment against an oil & gas company for “creating a private nuisance.” Our story today gets into the detail of what was behind the judgment.
There are three things that you should note as you read this. First, the couple did not have a well on their property. They did not have a contract or receive any payments. They just had the great misfortune to live near a bunch of wells that ruined their health, the nearest one over an eighth of a mile away.
The second thing follows yesterday’s post about the environmental and health impacts of the oil and gas boom. They are real, they are more significant than people want to believe, and there are going to be more people whose health is going to be ruined as drilling expands into their neighborhoods.
And the third is the familiar refrain on this blog of the helplessness or unwillingness of state and federal agencies to step in and stop a serious problem.
These are lessons we need to take to heart along the Beartooth Front. Oil and gas drilling affects everyone in a community, it will have a significant impact, and government agencies will not help us. If we want to keep this from happening, we will need to take the responsibility to stop it ourselves.
You can see other personal stories in this series by clicking here. Note that you can find more by clicking “Older Posts” at the bottom of the page.
Bob and Lisa Parr, Wise County, Texas
Bob and Lisa Parr were neighbors of Tim and Christine Ruggiero in Wise County, Texas in 2008 when drilling began in their neighborhood. We told the Ruggieros’ story on this blog a few months ago. They were the family whose property was devalued from $257,330 to $75,240 because of damage done to their property during drilling
In May 2008, Lisa had married Bob Parr on golden colored stone steps at his country home in east Wise County in Allison, Texas. The back porch overlooks a picturesque setting. Horses and cows graze lazily in a green pasture. Denton Creek winds along the back of the property, bringing with it a lush river of trees along either side.
It seems impossible that such an idyllic scene would become the backdrop for the poisoning of the Parr family by a laundry list of industrial neurotoxins. But the impossible would quickly come to pass. Lisa first felt sick in fall 2008. As the immense trees across her 40 acre homestead dropped pecans, she began to experience a host of unexplained ailments. The typical remedies didn’t work.
‘I had nine rounds of steroids in six months.’ she said. “It just blew me up and didn’t get rid of the problem.”
Lisa was treated by eight different doctors over the course of a year. A source of the sickness was never determined. In June 2009, exhausting everything he knew medically, her internal specialist suggested that something in the environment might be causing her various ailments.
In early fall 2009, she visited an environmental doctor who conñrmed the presence of neurotoxins in her blood that matched chemicals used in natural gas production.
Medical tests confirmed the toxins in Lisa’s system matched toxins found in the atmosphere in an air quality investigation conducted by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) at a nearby well site.
A strong odor
On the evening of July 25, 2010, the Parrs smelled a strong odor emanating from a frac tank at a site operated by Aruba Petroleum of Plano, Texas. They reported it, and investigators arrived within hours to capture air samples.
Odors were detected up to a quarter mile from the well site. Investigator Damon Armstrong reported that a “plume” from the tank was “visible with the naked
eye.” The petroleum-like odor was so intense the investigator himself felt sick in the short time he was there, noting dizziness and a sore throat.
The analysis found five compounds that exceeded safe values for short-term health and another 20 exceeded safe levels for long-term effects.
The investigation found elevated levels of ethane. pentane, hexane. octane, xylene and nonane, all potentially toxic chemicals.
Four days later, a medical test discovered the same chemicals in Lisa’s body.
‘The environmental specialist ran numerous tests on me.” Lisa said. “l had about 20 of the chemicals they use ín the oil and gas industry in my tissues and in my blood system. Never in my life had I been so sick.
Aruba was the operator for many of the wells surrounding the Parr home. TCEQ received dozens of odor, spill and nuisance complaints from Allison residents in the community, and, according to a 2010 news article, enforcement actions were pending against two nearby Aruba sites, one for nuisance and another for violations without authorization.
The company had been fined more than $30,000 in the year prior to the 2010 article by the TCEQ. Those of you who have followed this blog will note that ECA, which is drilling wells in Belfry and Dean, has a similar track record in Pennsylvania, where they have 66 inspections with violations, 90 separate violations, and 55 enforcement actions with fines totaling over $80,000; and 70 more violations in West Virginia.
A perfect location to attract chemicals and toxins
While the Parrs had no wells on their property, their location makes it a natural pocket for collecting heavy toxins.
“We live below a ridge in a little valley,” Bob said. “At night when the wind dies down, anything down here sits and settles. Some of these chemicals and toxins are heavier than the air.“
Lisa’s symptoms continued to worsen. “l was pretty much losing my memory,” she said. ‘I couldn’t walk straight and I kept falling down. I started shaking uncontrollably. My face blew up. I was stuttering very bad.”
At one point the lymph nodes on her neck swelled as big as pecans. A doctor suspectd she had lymphatic canœr, but it turned out to be only a reaction to the toxins.
“Waiting on those results was two days of emotional trauma.” she said.
Bob and their seven-year old daughter Emma felt sick as well.
Emma was diagnosed with asthma. She’d never had any respiratory problems. She also started breaking out in rashes and having stomach problems.
Bob also suffered from nosebleeds. “I’m 50 years old and probably had no more than three or four nosebleeds in my entire lifetime,” Bob said. “All of a sudden I’m getting them three times a week. It was odd.”
“I hired someone to do water and air sampling at the home,” Lisa said. “The methane level in my daughter’s room was at asphyxiation levels, barely lower than what it was outside our home.”
She showed the results to her doctor. who told her to leave her home within 48 hours.
“The doctor told me right then,” she said, pausing as her voice cracked and a tear streamed across her left cheek. “I had to move immediately because if I did not, we would have to spend more time and money on hospitalization, on chemotherapy and morticians for my whole family.”
On Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010, they said goodbye to what was once their dream home and moved into Bob’s office.
Not the sickly type
Bob and Lisa Parr aren’t the sickly type. Bob built his home in 2001. He’s enjoyed a long career in stone masonry and raising cattle. His home reflects the rugged outdoor lifestyle he enjoys. Walls bear the trophies of big-game hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Black bear, mountain lions and elk are mounted on high wooden walls.
“We love it here,” Lisa said. “We’re secluded, private. We just wanted to be alone, and we’ve been run out of our house. It’s not right. What’s even more not right is we thought
TCEQ would come out and help us — they would clean up this mess.”
“We had no help. We have someone who is contaminating our air. It has affected our cattle. We‘ve lost pets. We’ve lost chickens. We all got sick, and we got no help,” she said.
Tony Walker regional director for TCEQ, said, “We don’t have the authority to shut down (a facility), but if we have to we can contact the attorney general and ask them to step in.”
The Parrs file suit
In 2011 the Parrs had had enough. They filed suit against Aruba.
The common practice in a case where the evidence is as clear as it is in this one is that the drilling company will settle, and one of the provisions of the settlement will be a gag order that prevents the damaged family from talking about the details of the settlement for the rest of their lives. This leaves the rest of the world in the dark about what the company admitted to and what the nature of the damages is.
But in this case, perhaps for the first time in history, Aruba took the case to trial. It wasn’t because they felt they were blameless or there weren’t damages, but they felt that because there were other drilling companies in the area, and because Aruba had met state standards, there is no way they could be held at fault.
But a jury disagreed. By a 5-1 vote, the jury awarded the Parrs $2.9 million in damages. The jury decided that Aruba “intentionally created a private nuisance,” awarding $275,000 for losses of property value, $2 million for past physical pain and suffering, $250,000 for future physical pain and suffering, and $400,000 for mental anguish.”
The verdict was less than the Parrs had sought in their complaint, which was $66 million in damages. This is because the jury rejected the Parrs’ claim that Aruba acted with malice, therefore denying their bid for exemplary damages, according to a Law360 report (login required).