Can pollution from natural gas drilling or other heavy industry turn homes into “Unlivable Property”?

Beth Strudley, a homeowner in Silt Mesa, Colorado filed a Constructive Eviction claim with her insurance company after doctors told the family to get out of the house due to chemical exposure.  Constructive Eviction is when outside circumstances render the house uninhabitable, circumstantially evicting a person or family from their home.

The Strudley’s live near gas wells where hydraulic fracturing takes place.  Over the past year, just after the drilling began, the family started smelling increasingly strong rotten egg odors.  Not long after, her children started getting sick.  Their bodies were covered in rashes and the entire family developed severe nose bleeds, all signs of chemical exposure.

Their homeowners insurance approved their claim for Constructive Eviction, agreeing to pay the rent in the new family home and as well as paying for new furniture and carpeting.

Most insurance companies won’t even hear a claim like that. Remember the toxic drywall from China in 2009?  The majority of homes rebuilt in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were contaminated with the same rotten egg smelling chemical, Hydrogen Sulfide.  The majority of claims filed with homeowners insurance companies were denied due to a “total pollution exclusion”.  Many homeowners lost so much money that the IRS granted tax breaks for homeowners affected by property damage caused by imported Chinese drywall.

Fracking shoots a mix of over 80,000 pounds of chemicals into the earth’s crust.  70% of those chemicals do not break down.  Common sense would lead you to believe that something about this toxic soup of chemicals spewed into the ground would lead to chemical contamination of our water, our air and of the Strudleys’ home, right?

Absolutely!  And in this rare case, the doctors and insurance companies believe it too, offering the Strudleys the support they need.  The doctors took one look at Beth’s son’s rash and insisted they leave the property immediately. Sounds simple and straightforward.

The problem here is in many cases the family can’t afford to leave.  The Strudleys bought their house, the single largest investment for most families,  before the fracking began in their community.  Now that the house has been contaminated, their house isn’t worth nearly what they paid for it.  Who wants to live in a place that makes them sick?  How can the Strudley’s buy a new house when no one is willing to buy their old one?

Even though the insurance company is currently offering the support the family needs, it’s not a long term solution.  The Strudleys are still faced with losing a lot of money on their house and are in the process of filing a mass action lawsuit with the same law firm that handled the World Trade Center’s Respiratory Illness Lawsuits.  Ideally, this lawsuit will set some precedent for all the other homeowners that can’t afford to move out of their toxic communities.

That would make a huge difference for Adrienne Crawford in Southwest Detroit.  Her community is surrounded by heavy industry including Marathon Oil Refinery.  A pungent odor expelling from Adrienne’s basement provoked air sampling in her home.  The results were astonishing.  According to Environmental Health Expert, Mark Chernaik, “The levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, are especially alarming, almost 1000 times the risk threshold”.  The Southwest Detroit community wants to move but with their home values so low it is a distant possibility, at least without the support from insurance companies and NY law firms.

Keep your fingers crossed, we’re moving in a good direction.  The Strudleys might just see a bit of justice here and the precedent will be laid for all other communities who are have no other choice but to continue to live in an unhealthy home and environment.

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