HARRISBURG – A panel of appeals court judges ruled today that a court case over gas industry secrecy must be heard by a trial court, despite objections from the gas industry.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter are seeking to intervene to overturn a court order sealing the record in a case in which a Pennsylvania family sued several gas companies over property damage and health impacts related to air and water pollution from nearby natural gas operations.
The gas companies are fighting to keep the records out of the public eye. As a result of today's ruling, the newspapers will have the opportunity to present their argument to the trial court that the record should be unsealed so that the public can access information regarding this case.
“We’re glad that the court ruled against industry’s attempt to block this case from proceeding. As long as the gas industry continues to hide chemical information, fight journalists seeking the truth, and silence families to prevent them from speaking out, it will never gain the public’s trust – and rightly so, said Earthjustice attorney Matthew Gerhart.
Instead of obstructing access to information, gas companies should be disclosing the information necessary to understand the health impacts of fracking,” Gerhart said.
The newspapers seek to unseal a settlement agreement between homeowner (plaintiffs) and fracking companies (defendants).
The parties of the underlying matter are plaintiffs Chris and Stephanie Hollowich, husband and wife, and defendants Range Resources Corp., Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream, Markwest Energy Partners LP, Markwest Energy Group LLC.
The judges note that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was also named as a defendant in the suit that the Hallowiches filed but has not taken part in the litigation and they do not refer to DEP when referring the the defendants.
Two Post-Gazette reporters showed up on the day of a settlement hearing involving the couple's minor children in August 2011 and requested to attend, but that request was denied by the trial court.
The companies filed a joint motion to seal the record, which they and theplaintiffs agreed to, and the trial court approved and filed an order to seal the record on the same day.
On Sept. 6, the Post-Gazette filed a motion to intervene and unseal the record and a week later, the Observer-Reporter filed a petition to intervene and joined The Post-Gazette’s motion to unseal the record. The petitions invoked the Pennsylvania Constitution’s provision, “All courts shall be open,” and the U.S. Constitution First Amendment’s right of access to civil proceedings.
The court denied the newspapers' petitions on the grounds of timeliness.
The newspapers argued that the settlement hearing was scheduled for Aug. 26, 2011, but the parties agreed to meet instead on Aug. 24, 2011, and the date was never changed on the docket. Therefore, although they filed a motion after the hearing was over, there was no way they could have filed prior to the case being closed because the trial court sealed the reord on the same day.
The appeals judges agreed and ordered a hearing on unsealing the case record.
The newspapers were joined in the case earlier this year by a group of doctors, scientists, researchers and advocates seeking access to information that they say could shed light on the health impacts of gas development, including the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Represented by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, the group -- Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein, Dr. Walter Tsou, Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, Dr. William Rom, Dr. Mehernosh P. Khan, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, Dr. Simona Perry, Dr. Robert Oswald, Dr. Michelle Bamberger, Kathryn Vennie, and Earthworks -- filed an amicus brief in April supporting the newspapers.