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Families sue Range Resources, claiming ills from gas wells

| Friday, May 25, 2012, 9:41 p.m.

Three Washington County families claim they were exposed to carcinogens and suffered health problems including nosebleeds, debilitating headaches and stomach ulcers because of Range Resources Corp.'s drilling operations, according to a lawsuit filed on Friday.

A litany of spills and leaks and the use of a potentially cancer-causing chemical to stop odors at the site contributed to air and water pollution where the families live in Amwell, they claim. Range Resources and its contractors built a water impoundment above a dozen natural springs and the source of well water there, but made several mistakes in its construction and fixing its problems while using it as an unpermitted dump for other wells' waste, the lawsuit states.

A company spokesman denied many of the claims. Range officials have responded extensively to complaints from the families and worked with state officials to comply with environmental rules and fix any problems, spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. The plaintiffs' lead attorney, John M. Smith, has been a central figure in several legal battles with the industry, including the challenge to the state's new oil and gas laws, Pitzarella noted.

"They very carefully string together a series of incidents -- some of them real, and some of them not -- to craft a series of conclusions that in many cases have already been debunked by the state," he said.

Officials at the Department of Environmental Protection declined to comment, saying they need time to review the allegations in the 182-page suit. At least two of the families previously tangled with the department about its investigations into their allegations and decisions not to fault Range. State officials said they fully investigated.

The department fined Range $18,025 in April for brine and drilling fluid leaks at nearby properties in 2010 and 2011. They came from a pipeline that connects to the impoundment referenced in the lawsuit. Other claims of spills and leaks in the lawsuit could not immediately be verified.

Many of those cases did not result in fines or even violations from the DEP, Smith said. That's why the families have been pursuing the agency in cases in front of the state Environmental Hearing Board and Commonwealth Court. This case, filed in Washington County Common Pleas Court, will decide personal injury.

The plaintiffs have verified chemicals in their bodies -- including toluene, benzene and arsenic -- through urine tests, according to the lawsuit. Several independent lab tests show drilling-related chemicals in their water, Smith said.

The suit claims Range, helped by its contracted laboratories, concealed results that would have shown the water is unsafe to drink -- a claim Pitzarella denied.

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