The Day Them Big Shot Lawyers Came to Town

They didn’t ride in on white horses or wear white hats. But they weren’t chasing any ambulances either. At the Tuesday evening (2/22) meeting about Natural Gas Drilling Concerns & Legal Options, the woman sitting next to me said, “I’m just here to see what them big shot lawyers have to say. I live in Carbondale. We’re not really affected by gas drilling.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, though it’s not the first time I’ve heard that from people from up valley. I’m always amused by people who move to Carbondale to get away from the effects of gas well drilling. Right. And I live in Silt so I don’t have to deal with the effects of tourism. On the other hand, if Carbondale-ites are paying attention we MUST be making progress.

I’m guessing most of the approximately 125 people were there because they were also curious about “them big shot lawyers”. Folks around here tend to be suspicious of lawyers from New York. After all, we’ve had it drilled into our heads that mineral rights trump all other rights and if we don’t like it we can leave. Naturally we might be skeptical of anyone who says otherwise.

Who were those guys?

Corey Zurbuch is a local attorney for Thomas Genshaft in Aspen. His firm was the first to contact residents in Silt Mesa about the impacts of natural gas drilling. Peter Thomas (of the same firm) then contacted Napoli Bern & Ripka because of their experience with environmental impact litigation. They have an extensive and interesting website where you can read about a variety of cases. Most notably the firm negotiated a landmark settlement for 911 Ground Zero workers who have suffered from the effects of exposure to toxins at the WTC site. Currently Napoli Bern & Ripka represent 12 families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, who suffer from the effects of natural gas drilling.

Marc Bern – the Bern in Napoli Bern & Ripka – began his talk by calling out any folks in the audience from Antero. Nobody said anything.

Bern pointed to Scott Balcomb. “Aren’t you Antero’s attorney?”

“I’m here as a lawyer,” Antero’s attorney Scott Balcomb said.

“A lawyer,” Bern said. “I see. Anyone else here from Antero?”

Another guy sheepishly raised his hand. The man sitting next to me also pointed out a guy from Bill Barrett a couple rows ahead. No one I talked to recognized anyone from Encana. But I wouldn’t expect anyone from Encana to show up. That would imply they give a shit.

Bern provided an overview of some of the cases his firm has handled, which you can read about at the NBR website. He focused most of his attention, including a short video, on their ongoing lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas on behalf of 12 families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, which he described as “almost like a ghost town” because of natural gas drilling. Dimock is featured in the film, Gasland, which Bern also talked about. I got the distinct impression the part Garfield County played so poignantly in the film captured the NBR attorneys’ imaginations.

Tate Kunkle, also of NBR, was introduced as an environmental law specialist who has worked with Bobby Kennedy, Jr. on environmental cases. He participated in the Q&A session.

Audience members were asked to write their questions on index cards.

During a break before the Q&A, GarCo County Commissioner John Martin was spotted in a back room discussion with someone. Whom was he talking to?

Moments later Antero’s attorney Scott Balcomb exited the back room with Martin.

I’m sure they were probably just comparing the questions they wrote on the index cards. What else could those two men possibly have to talk about in private?

What are them hot shot lawyers doing here?

The Q&A session covered the basics. NBR handles health and/or water contamination issues as individual cases. A medical monitoring class action lawsuit involving several people with ongoing illnesses is also a possibility. There is something called a “cause of action” which can occur before drilling even commences. Persons can sue for stigma damage if their property value is affected by other neighbors’ property damage due to gas well drilling.

A question related to that asked, “How would you defend loss of property values in this current economy?”

Bern responded, “If the property owners’ water goes bad that’s the key to property values.”

In response to a question about whether lawsuits can cause the gas industry to change, Bern brought up “Vice President Halliburton” and the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The bill exempted fracking fluids from protections under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act. It created a loophole that exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals involved in fracking operations, a provision which would normally be required under federal clean water laws. The loophole is commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole” since former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was reportedly instrumental in its passage. Bern said he is optimistic Congress will pass the proposed Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act which will repeal those exemptions.

“Lawsuits help bring about change by making companies more responsible,” Bern concluded.

When asked whether local elected officials can be held responsible for damages, Bern stated, “The government has immunity.” He went on to explain that potential liability rests with the gas drillers, mineral rights owners, and the energy industry in general.

Bern said NBR handles cases on a contingency basis and they will also look at leases. He encouraged people to call and discuss their situations before they make any decisions. They broke early enough to make time for those who preferred to have private discussions. The meeting was short, lasting only about 80 minutes and there were snacks. None of it came across as a sales pitch to me.

This has been a long time coming. Since I started this blog in 2006, I have been writing about the impacts of gas well drilling. And so has Lisa Bracken. It was like shouting into a culvert. It seemed like nobody paid any attention. On the way home I thought about all the people I’ve known who fled this area to rescue their health and then bore huge financial losses because of it. I thought about the people who weren’t at the meeting, people who still live here and suffer the impacts of gas drilling. Could Silt become unlivable, like Dimock? For some it already has.

Change has come to Western Garfield County and it’s about damn time.

If you have questions or concerns about how natural gas drilling is affecting your water, property, or the health of your family call Marc Bern or Tate Kunkle at: 1-800-642-8901

If you have any questions about Napoli Bern & Ripka, visit their website. Go to the Environmental Litigation Department and join their mailing list.

Legal options against gas drilling companies discussed at meeting
Attorneys spoke to county residents about perceived negative impacts of gas drilling activity in the area

There was also an article by Dennis Webb in the Wednesday (2/23) edition of the Grand Junction paper, The Daily Sentinel. But you can’t read it because they don’t leave any copies in Silt and you can’t access their news online without a paid subscription. Yeesh …

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2 Comments on “The Day Them Big Shot Lawyers Came to Town”

  1. Marilyn Says:

    Enjoyed Peggy’s coverage of the meeting with the lawyers in this blog. I wanted to add one more link to KDNK’s news story on the same meeting:

  2. Peggy Tibbetts Says:

    Thank you Marilyn, and thanks for sending the link. You did a great job with your report. I hope my readers will take the time to listen.

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