Tuesday February 22, 2011
Glenwood Springs Community Center
Glenwood Springs, Garfield County, Colorado
EXPLORING LEGAL OPTIONS
IN GARFIELD COUNTY, COLORADO
It was a standing room only crowd Tuesday night for a meeting to discuss the legal options of residents living near the sites of natural gas drilling operations. The informative meeting was hosted by the law firms of Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates from New York City, and the law firm of Thomas/Genshaft LLP out of Aspen, Colorado, which specializes in real estate law. In the days leading up to the meeting, it had been suggested that it was possible the firms were ‘ambulance chasers,’ only latching onto the potential cases because oil and gas drillers have deep, deep pockets. By the end of Marc Bern’s impassioned speech, that notion seemed to be dispelled, and the attendees were heard murmuring to one another about how maybe, just maybe, the tide was about turn in their favor.
Marc Bern’s law firm is no stranger to daunting cases. They settled a case against the City of New York, winning approximately $800 million dollars for the emergency responders in the New York and Washington D.C. terrorist attacks of 2001. Before that settlement, many of the emergency workers who had become ill after helping others in the maelstrom that was left in the wake of the attacks were left to fend for themselves when they became too sick to work and maintain their health insurance benefits. Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates has experience with cases of groundwater contamination in New York, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The firm also represents residents from Dimock, Pennsylvania, which is practically a ghost town after natural gas drilling operations there have contaminated the land and water and sent many residents fleeing the area as if it were Chernobyl. Unfortunately, most people cannot afford to abandon homes that they’ve paid for or are still paying for. The properties cannot be sold. The aquifer in Dimock has been contaminated by methane gas, and dangerously high levels of aluminum and iron. The oil and gas company responsible for the contamination, Houston, Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas, began delivering water to the town after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection took all of the residential wells offline. In the meantime, property values plummeted and residents got sick, or sicker. Their tale is as familiar as the one that has been unfolding for years in Garfield County, Colorado, which is featured in the Oscar nominated documentary film, GASLAND.
Bern opened the meeting with a short clip about the effects that hydraulic fracturing contamination has had on the residents of Dimock. He went on to explain that there are countries around the world which import natural gas from the U.S., even though they have their own underground resources, because they do not want to destroy their own environments. Bern also pointed out that China recently bought a multi-million dollar stake in oil and gas fields in southern Texas. There’s probably nothing anyone can do to slow or stop this modern day underground Gold Rush, but residents in this once peaceful and independent county are about to find themselves with access to contingency-based legal representation. It isn’t that Garfield County residents didn’t have legitimate concerns and issues before now, they simply did not have the financial means to go up against an industry that is well-funded by the methods that are making people sick.
To keep the meeting moving along smoothly, Bern asked that questions be written down, allowing him and his colleagues, Tate Kunkle, of Napoli Bern Ripka, and Corey Zurbuch, of Thomas/Genshaft, to answer more efficiently.
Question 1) What is the possibility of a class action suit?
The law firms plan individual law suits for residents whose land, water, and health have been impacted. They will also be seeking to have the gas company (in this particular case, it is Antero Resources) create a medical monitoring fund which will allow residents free access to regular health screenings to detect potential future illness.
Question 2) What are the odds of getting the industry to change their practices?
Bern said, “Dick Cheney made sure the energy act exempted hydraulic fracturing.” He believes that Congress will eventually overturn that exemption, saying, “Change happens because of law suits.”
Question 3) How will you defend loss of property value in this recession/economy?
Bern explained that while the overall national drop in real estate property is approximately 30%, if it can proven that a resident’s property is now worth even less than that 30% average, they have a legal case for diminished valuation. “If you don’t have water that can be used for crops, livestock, pets, or personal use, that’s going to be more than the national 30% loss.”
Question 4) Is there a contact person for legal representation?
Marc Bern and Tate Kunkle with Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates 1.800.642.8901
Question 5) Do you represent legal issues before problems?
Medical monitoring would track symptoms, which is why we will be seeking court-ordered funding from the gas company.
Question 6) If one does not own property, but their health is affected by exposure to gas drilling, can they still file for legal assistance?
Yes – one does not need to be a land or home owner to file for representation.
Question 7) Can government leaders be held accountable for decisions that allow drilling to continue?
Government representatives are immune; they cannot be sued. Plaintiffs must go after the owners of property rights given to drilling companies.
Question 8) What is the statute of limitation for bringing a suit against the drilling company?
Statute of limitation for damage or contamination of property is 3 years. Statute of limitation for personal injury is 2 years. However, if one had not been aware of the cause & effect of the personal injury (not realizing that an illness was caused by the drilling process), one may still file a law suit.
Question 9) What are ‘stigma damages’?
‘Stigma damages’ are based on having a property that is not physically affected, but is still affected by a neighboring parcel of land which IS damaged by the drilling. This includes diminished property values.
Question 10) Do you require a retainer fee?
Cases are based on contingency. If the firm doesn’t believe there’s enough to win a case, they won’t take it. Legal fees are taken only after the law suit has been won.
The first case which will be brought against Antero Resources will be filed by Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates LLP within the next two weeks, and will be based on the plaintiff’s contaminated domestic well, personal injury to health, and diminished value of real estate property.