By Phelim McAleer
The Ely and Hubert families in Dimock, Pennsylvania are suing Cabot Oil & Gas alleging they have polluted their water. In various court filings and in countless documentaries and comments to journalists, the Ely family have claimed fracking/drilling has destroyed their life, damaged their health, and caused their children to be ill--serious allegations. They attracted international publicity with anti-fracking activists describing Dimock as the “ground zero” of fracking pollution. But after eight years of allegations and one week of the trial, here are seven reasons the the case looks very, very shaky.
1. Testing the Truth
The plaintiffs’ case was collapsing long before they entered the court in Scranton. Their original complaint contained alarming allegations that Cabot and fracking caused neurological, gastrointestinal, and dermatological damage to the plaintiffs and their children. They also claimed that a blood study showed results consistent with toxic exposure to..heavy metals. But in the run up to the hearing, they failed to produce ANY evidence to back up these claims. No doctor’s report, no blood test, nothing. The evidence was so lacking that the judge prevented them from even raising the possibility in the court that their health was affected.
2. Legal Eagle
The plaintiffs’ lawyer is truly awful. Leslie Lewis is so bad that it’s possible that she’s looking for a sympathy verdict from the jury. She is disorganized, doesn't seem to understand the science, and constantly tries to put words in witnesses’ mouths when she doesn't get the answer she wants. She also has the habit of blurting out statements that damage her clients’ case. It was Ms. Lewis who early in the case memorably and unnecessarily told the jury that the central allegation of anti-fracking activists across the planet had no scientific basis. There was absolutely no evidence that fracking fluids had ever contaminated Dimock's water. “We don't have proof of that. This is not about fracking fluid appearing in the water. Hydraulic fracturing materials, we don't have proof of that,” she told the jury.
But don't take my word for it. Ms. Lewis hasn't impressed the judge, either. Judge Martin Carlson criticized her, stating that her attempts to introduce an enormous amount of “evidence” at the last minute was “extraordinary, unprecedented, unexplained and [a] profoundly troubling development.”
And her clients aren’t much better. It's difficult to know if the Ely family are bad parents or bad liars or both. Despite claiming that they and their children were suffering from a raft of medical conditions after being poisoned by fracking fluids and other chemicals, the Elys never, ever took their children to a doctor to discuss the illnesses--not once. And the Elys are not unsophisticated people who would not have had access to medical experts. Monica Ely is a dentist who would have friends and colleagues who could help her access the best tests and best experts available. But they didn't even bother having their children tested--despite the fact that the Elys kept telling their children and the world's media that they had been poisoned. In fact, the Elys were so unconcerned with the state of their water on the property that after they claimed it was poisoned they went ahead and built a $1 million mansion on the property.
Scott Ely was a shifty and very unimpressive witness. But perhaps the lowest moment was when he tried to fix a problematic timeline (that he set up) but fatally undermined his credibility. Scott had told three different people--a doctor, a hydrologist, and in a handwritten statement to his own lawyer--that the water problems started in August 2008. However, his lawyer has also told the court that they all accept drilling did not start on nearby gas wells until late September/October 2008. So on the witness stand, Scott suddenly remembered--eight years after the case started--that in June/July 2008 he remembered a massive gas leak at a gas well that he was claiming must have affected his water.
“I pulled up on that location. The location was shut down. Gas was spewing out of ground....It stunk like crazy everybody was evacuated from the location....You can see the gas up around the rig,” he told the jury. Except that he was then forced to admit that natural gas is invisible and odorless. So the jury will have to believe Scott Ely has superhuman powers, or they will have to assume that he is a dishonest witness.
5. Mother of the Year
Monica Ely has been shown to be an extremely dodgy witness also. Apart from neglecting to bring her children to the doctor--even though she thought they had been poisoned by fracking--Ms Ely also portrayed herself as someone who tried to shield her children from the politicking and contentious debate around fracking. She testified that she tried “not to involve our kids with this.” Then the Cabot lawyers pointed out and produced photos (see above) that showed far from sheltering her children Ms Ely had in fact “brought them to press conferences, rallies with people like [actor] Mark Ruffalo, taken them to the Tribeca Film festival,” and had allowed them to be featured in the highly contentious documentary Gasland. Monica Ely: no time to take her children to the doctor even though she thought they were poisoned but plenty of time to take them to rallies with actors and activists.
6. Expert Witness
The the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses are pretty awful also. Hydrologist Paul Rudin gave evidence on Friday where, after posing as a neutral scientist, admitted that he had “come into this case with a bias against non-renewable energy exploration.” That’s right. The first expert witness the plaintiffs were able to produce admitted he was biased against fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies. Science at its purest, obviously.
And Paul Rudin’s methodology is unorthodox to say the least. Despite wanting to find out if Scott Ely's property was affected by gas drilling, he did no tests on the property, but instead went to a quarry 2,700 ft away and concluded that was sufficient examination of the property's geology. And in breach of every acceptable international standard, he allowed Scott Ely to collect the water supplies that he analyzed with no checks or attempts to ensure that the water was collected properly.