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Fayette County families allege nuisance in suit over gas drilling

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Six Fayette County families filed a civil lawsuit in Allegheny County on Thursday claiming nearby natural gas wells are a nuisance that have diminished their ability to use their property.

The families, who reside in Springhill and Nicholson townships, claim in the 63-page lawsuit that Chevron Corp., Williams Cos. and WPX Energy Inc., which own, operate and maintain several gas wells in the area, “adversely impacted” their “quality of life and enjoyment of property.” They are seeking unspecified damages for the effects of toxic chemicals, noise, odor and damage to their properties from a dozen gas wells and a compressor station near their property.

“Private property rights are near and dear to everyone in this country,” said Charlie Speer, a Kansas City, Mo.-based attorney representing the families. “Folks' homes are typically their biggest investment in life and people want to be safe, secure and happy in their homes. This was a massive intrusion in their lives.”

According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of David and Linda Headley; Joseph and Mildred Bezjak; Benjamin Sr. and Lori Groover; Elzie and Mary Lavery; Robert E. Nicklow Sr.; and Albert Stronko, the companies began drilling operations in 2005.

By 2011, the wells began to leak and efforts by the companies to fix the problems failed, the lawsuit says.

“It's been a nightmare for them,” Speer said.

Local officials at both Chevron and Williams declined to comment on the case. Neither company had been served with the lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon and would not comment on pending litigation.

The properties sit around a three-mile stretch that has been part of a bitter feud between the families and the gas companies working there. Two families, including lead plaintiff David Headley, have been in and out of court fighting allegations they accosted workers, even bringing guns to work sites.

The families have claimed they were reacting to gun-toting security workers who had spent weeks intimidating their families after they complained of environmental and contractual violations.

The DEP cited Atlas last year for a corroded, leaky tank on Headley's property. It also cited Laurel Mountain Midstream, a subsidiary of Williams, for pipeline work that spilled 300 to 1,000 gallons of bentonite, a clay that can smother aquatic life, into the stream bed along his land.

The DEP could not immediately respond to a request for an update on violations there, spokesman John Poister said.

“Every day you're away from home and they're working, you wonder what they're going to destroy. And when they're not working, you wonder if they're ever going to come back and fix it,” Benjamin Groover, 45, said during an interview at his home on May 20. “They know it's not going to be worth it to you to take them to court for $3,000. … Their whole purpose is to make it so horrific that you know not to bother.”

Noise from a compressor station run by Laurel Mountain forced the Groovers to abandon their residence in June 2009. They have since moved to another building on their property.

Speer said he decided to treat the lawsuit as a nuisance complaint because the companies are making “unreasonable use” of the plaintiffs' properties.

“If I lease my farm to someone, that doesn't mean they can tear down my barn, tear down my house and rape my wife,” he said. “Treating this as a nuisance case really brings the quality of life issues to the floor and I don't think most juries would want this happening to them.”

Adam Brandolph and Tim Puko are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927. Puko can be reached at 412-320-7991.

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