After Living Next to Drilling Activity, 100 W.Va. Residents Sue Companies

Dec 18, 2014

Before/After screen capture of the Mark West Plant, a major mid-stream gas processing plant that's in the middle of construction in Doddridge County.
Credit WV Host Farms

Nuisance and negligence lawsuits have been filed this year throughout West Virginia related to horizontal drilling activities. Noise, air, and water pollution, traffic and debris are among complaints. It’s a new industrial world for many West Virginians living in the growing rural gas fields.  

Gas Moved In Next Door, And Made Itself At Home

Lyndia Ervolina stood in her front yard, 75 feet or so from Route 50 in Doddridge County. She pointed to several heavy trucks passing by.

“They’re hauling water, they’re hauling sand, they’re hauling that silica sand, they’re hauling frac fluid. Anything you can think of,” she said with a strained tone in her voice.

Drill cuttings, heavy machinery, pipe… Ervolina sees it all from her front porch. For the past thirty years, she’s lived in her charming home that rests in a nook off of Route 50, but she says the traffic wasn’t an issue until four or five years ago when horizontal drilling took off in this neck of Doddridge County. She’s not an industry expert, but she well-knows what it’s like to live surrounded by horizontal drilling operations.

Gas has moved in to Ervolina’s yard, literally. She has a beautiful garden that’s clearly seen years of work, but it’s fallen into disrepair. And if you linger there, it’s not too hard to guess why.

There’s a heavy odor wafting through the air that makes you worry about the presence of open flames. Ervolina said it comes from across the street.

“I have a condensate tank up there that they blow off right across the road that they put in when they put the pipeline in. I have no idea why they put it right across from us,” she said.

Condensate tanks are used to clean gas as it goes through lines, to remove impurities.

“And they just blow it into the air,” Ervolina said. “So when it gets blown off into the air it comes to my house.”

Lyndia Ervolina doesn’t own any mineral rights on her two-acre lot; she gains nothing by living within arms-reach of such industry. Companies have no legal obligation to explain what they’re doing even if it’s happening right across the street; and there’s no forum to facilitate communication. She and her family are left to wonder and worry.

She says moving away isn’t off the table, as many others have already done. But it’s a painful thought to entertain.

“My house has no value now and I wonder if I should take what money we have left and invest it in the house or just figure that we might have to move out of here. It kind of leaves you just in this limbo. I just turned 67 and my husband is 68 and … it’s kind of hard to start over.”

Mass Litigation

Ervolina’s story is one of many in the northern gas fields. Over the past year about fifty cases and about a hundred claimants have filed suits mostly in Harrison and Doddridge counties, but also Pleasants, Kanawha, Ritchie, Marion, and Monongalia.  Citizens are filing suit against several companies including Colorado-based Antero Resources, West Virginia-based Hall Drilling, and Pennsylvania-based EQT. The negligence and nuisance claims are coming from residents and property owners like Ervolina last who live in the vicinity of oil or natural gas drilling activities.

I drove around and spoke with other residents in the community who are worried about air and noise pollution. But few are willing to publicly voice concerns because they don’t want to openly criticize economic development in their rural backyards. Some members of the community get paid to do odd jobs for gas companies like monitor traffic, or help clean up spills. Still others like Ervolina who are filing suits and have been advised by legal counsel not to discuss their issues; and if their cases are settled, they are often legally forbidden from discussing problems as part of the legal settlement.

Attorney and co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, Dave McMahon explained that these nuisance suits aren’t very common.

“That’s because there’s often not enough money in one nuisance case for a lawyer to be able to bring the case on a contingent-fee basis,” McMahon said. “And very few people living out there in the country have the money to pay a good lawyer and hourly-basis to bring one of these cases.”

McMahon is not the lawyer filing THESE cases, but he was present when the fifty-or-so cases filed in the state were compiled into a mass litigation suit--which is when many similar cases are compiled to be heard and judged on simultaneously to avoid conflicting rulings and a clogged court system. McMahon says this kind of legal action is the only recourse people have.

“The Horizontal Well Act that was passed a couple years ago didn’t do what it should have for surface owners--we say.” McMahon said. “There were a number of studies put in instead of surface-owner protections. The studies were conducted by WVU and other places. The studies made recommendations to give better protections to surface owners. But neither the DEP nor the legislature have made those changes. So, what we have to hope is that these actions in the court will protect people and will deter the industry from doing the kinds of nuisance things that they’ve been doing.”

***We reached out to Antero, EQT, Hall Drilling, and the WV Oil and Natural Gas Association for comment on this story but got no replies.