A drilling operation seeks oil and gas through fracking in Webb County,… (Eddie Seal / Bloomberg )
In a landmark legal victory that centered on fracking, a middle-class north Texas ranching family won nearly $3 million from a big natural gas company whose drilling, they contend, caused years of sickness, killed pets and livestock, and forced them out of their home for months.
Tuesday's $2.95-million civil verdict by a six-person Dallas jury is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation. Other landowners have sued over drilling and reached settlements, but legal experts think this is the first jury verdict.
Robert and Lisa Parr filed suit against Aruba Petroleum Inc. in 2011, contending that its operations near their land had contaminated the air and harmed their health. Their lawsuit has been closely watched by both critics and supporters of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping water laced with chemicals into shale formations to unlock trapped oil and gas.
"I am just overwhelmed," Lisa Parr said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I feel like I am just this little bitty girl, this little family who just beat the biggest, most powerful industry in the world."
Aruba Petroleum, based in Plano, Texas, said it had done nothing wrong and had operated within safe and legal guidelines. "We contended the plaintiffs were neither harmed by the presence of our drilling operations nor was the value of their property diminished because of our natural gas development," Aruba said in a statement.
The company said it would appeal.
Environmentalists applauded the jury's decision. "It's a game-changing verdict that may have repercussions throughout the United States," said Gary Wocker, an environmental advocate in Colorado who has pushed anti-fracking initiatives in a state that, like Texas and elsewhere in the West, has seen an explosion of drilling in recent years.
Opponents of fracking have long warned of the dangers to people who live close to wells — either from contaminated water or, as in this case, dangerously polluted air.
The stakes, they say, are higher than most realize. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis last year, more than 15 million people live within one mile of a fracked well.
The Parrs allege that Aruba's ongoing drilling operations, not merely fracking, created their problems.
The trouble began when so many wells began burrowing into the land near their home — 20 within two miles, Lisa Parr said.
Robert Parr, a 53-year-old stonemason and cattle rancher, has lived on his 40-acre spread near Decatur, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth, since 2001. Lisa, 45, and her daughter Emma, now 11, moved in with him in 2007. The couple married a year later.
That was about when the fracturing boom reached that part of Texas, smack atop the lucrative Barnett Shale formation, considered among the largest producible reserves of onshore natural gas in the country.
Lisa, a stay-at-home mom, said that in November 2008 she started feeling sick to her stomach and suffered from blinding headaches. She brushed it off as the flu, but she didn't get better. She got worse.
Soon, she said, she developed a mysterious rash all over her body and open sores that never healed. Sometimes she had trouble standing and became disoriented. Once the rashes and sores became so severe that emergency room doctors had to pack her body in ice.
Her daughter, then in first grade, had horrible nosebleeds as she slept and would awaken soaked in blood.
Her husband began to have memory problems.
"We went to eight different doctors. None of them could figure it out," Lisa Parr said.
Their calves were born with birth defects, and their pets began to die.
By January 2010, the Parrs' neighbors also complained of mysterious ailments. That family hired a specialist to test the air and suggested the Parrs do the same.
The tests found BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — all colorless but toxic chemicals typically found in petroleum products.
Lisa took the findings to her doctor. "My doctor told me I needed to move out immediately or I would spend more time and money on hospitalizations, chemotherapy and a mortician," she said.
In April 2010, an environmental medical specialist ran tests on Lisa and found more than 20 toxic chemicals in her blood. As the person who spent the most time in the house, she showed the most symptoms.
From August 2010 to March 2011, the terrified Parrs moved out, living in a back room of Robert's business office in Denton, about 30 miles east.
In September 2011, the Parrs sued nine companies involved in the drilling operations, asking for $66 million in damages. Over time, some of the companies were dropped from the suit and others settled for an undisclosed sum, said Brad Gilde, a Houston lawyer who drafted the original lawsuit for the family and helped represent them in the two-week trial.
Gilde said other residents also sued, but unlike the Parrs, they merely alleged property damage, and settled. The Parrs contended that drilling emissions harmed their health. They welcomed a jury trial.
Jurors sided with the Parrs, 5 to 1, but did not find that Aruba had acted with malice.
These days, one of the closest wells is no longer operational. The Parrs have installed air and water purifiers in their house, which they have put up for sale. So far, they have had no takers.
It's the future that frightens them. Lisa said she worries most for her daughter, on the cusp of adolescence, because health problems could arise decades from now. "As a mom, that scares me to death."