Three families who live near a former drill site and frack wastewater impoundment at the Yeager Marcellus Shale site in Washington County, PA sued Range Resources in May 2012 claiming the air they breathe and the water they drink had been contaminated by Range’s operations at the site (see EPA Investigating Range Drill Site in Western PA). The case was eventually settled and sealed in September 2018.
Now the PA Attorney General and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are trying to pick the scab off that healed wound, in an attempt to (a) criminalize Range Resources, and (b) if they can’t make any crimes stick, at least humiliate and make Range look bad.
As part of the lawsuit, a Washington County court in 2013 ordered Range (not its contractors, but Range itself) to disclose a list of all chemicals used at the site–right down to the type of motor oil used in vehicles coming and going at the site (see PA Judge Forces Range, Contractors to Provide Chemical List). It would be an impossible task to construct such a list from activities stemming back to 2010, so Range appealed.
Range lost their appeal in June 2014 (see Court Says Range Resources Must Disclose Chemicals in SW PA). Range appealed a second time, and lost the second appeal in April 2015 (see Range Loses 2nd Appeal, Must Provide PA Well Site Chemical List).
It was at that point we lost track of the story and heard nothing further. What we now know is that Range eventually settled with the families, and the settlement (likely millions of dollars) is secret. Those are the terms the families accepted–keeping the settlement secret. Range no doubt maintains they are innocent, but wants to make the bad publicity and escalating legal fees go away–so they settled.
But it’s such a juicy case for grandstanding politicians with their eye on the governor’s chair, politicians like PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shapiro is investigating so-called environmental crimes committed by shale companies, in a bid to boost his chances of being the next nominee to run for governor (see PA AG Investigates Shale Drillers for “Enviro Crimes”). One of Shapiro’s sham investigations is into Range and the now-settled-and-closed-and-sealed “Haney” case (the families living near the Yeager site in Washington County).
Shapiro’s action of opening up the old wound caught the attention of the anti-drilling Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so they’ve just filed a request with the court to unseal the settlement, so they can blab the terms of the settlement far and wide, further damaging the old wound.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is seeking to unseal the confidential settlement of a high-profile court case in which Stacey Haney and her neighbors allege their health was damaged by toxic spills, leaks and air pollutants from a Range Resources Appalachia LLC shale gas well site in Amwell, Washington County.
Attorney Frederick Frank, representing the Post-Gazette, Monday filed an emergency petition with Judge Michael J. Lucas in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas to intervene and unseal the settlement in that six-year-long case filed in 2012.
Following a brief hearing on the motion Thursday morning, Judge Lucas scheduled arguments for 1 p.m., Monday, Feb. 25, on both the newspaper’s request to intervene and whether to unseal the settlement terms.
The case, which also alleged that Range and two commercial water testing laboratories conspired to conceal the presence of hazardous contaminants in the water supplies of residents living near the company’s Yeager well site, was settled, sealed and closed in September 2018.
Range attorney Kimberly Brown raised several procedural questions at Thursday’s hearing, including that the Post-Gazette had not entered its objections to the sealed settlement in a timely manner, before the case was closed.
Mr. Frank noted that Range made an identical argument in an unsuccessful attempt to block the newspaper from accessing the 2011 confidential settlement in the Hallowich case. The settlement agreement, restored to the public record of the case in 2013, shows that the Hallowich family was paid $750,000, but was prohibited from living within two miles of any Marcellus Shale gas facility, barred from objecting to any drilling under any new property or residence they may own, and prevented from speaking disparagingly about gas industry operations.
“The Superior Court ruled in the Hallowich case the public has the right to intervene at any time to unseal the record,” Mr. Frank said.
Mr. Frank argued in his 13-page brief to the court and at the hearing that the press, as a representative of the public, has an important role in protecting the openness of court proceedings. He also said that Range had not overcome the constitutional presumption that court proceedings and documents should be publicly accessible.
Ms. Haney has also filed a motion asking the Washington County court for a protective order seeking to unseal the settlement documents so she can reference them in a separate but related damage case she is pursuing in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. The hearing Thursday was originally scheduled to deal with her motion to strike a supplemental filing by Range opposing the protective order.
In the Allegheny County case, Ms. Haney alleges that the Washington County settlement was adversely affected by the unauthorized sharing of her health records in violation of the federal HIPAA law mandating confidentiality of such records.
The Post-Gazette learned of the settlement last week while reporting that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro has empaneled a grand jury to investigate potential “environmental crimes” committed by the oil and gas industry in Washington County. The attorney general sent a letter to attorneys representing Ms. Haney and Range that referenced the “Stacey Haney/Range Resources Investigation,” and requested that the case record be preserved, under penalty of law.
The Haney family’s story, including health problems, was chronicled in a book, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” by Eliza Griswold, which was among the New York Times critics’ top books of 2018.*
Here’s the thing. Both sides agreed to the settlement, and agreed to the terms of the settlement. And now the Post-Gazette wants to overturn that agreement for their own selfish reasons. If the rules can just be changed on a whim, we will lose faith in our system of justice. The end result is that our entire societal structure breaks down. The families signed an agreement, a contract, and now a newspaper wants that contract broken. Ever notice how it’s always the left that wants to change the rules midstream when they’re losing the game?
*Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette (Feb 7, 2019) – Post-Gazette asks court to unseal Haney shale gas case settlement
This post appeared first on Marcellus Drilling News