By Steve Mocarsky
March 20, 2013
HARRISBURG — A judge ruled today in favor of journalists seeking access to information about a fracking pollution court case.
Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca reversed an order by a Washington County court 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 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter had intervened in the case to unseal the records, while gas companies fought to keep the records out of the public eye.
The judge found that the gas companies’ assertions of a right to privacy under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of pennsylvania were meritless.
Stephanie and Chris Hallowich had sued Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Mainstream, Markwest Energy in May 2010 claiming they damaged the family’s health and property value. The Hallowiches also named the state Department of Environmental Protection as a defendant for failing to enforce laws and protect them.
The parties reached a settlement in the summer of 2011, but a settlement hearing was held prior to dates in court orders and the newspapers were not notified. Reporters learned of the meeting and tried to enter, but they were denied entry, told that the hearing was closed at the request of both parties. The same day, the settlement was sealed.
The newspapers sued to have the record opened.
Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, submitted an amicus brief supporting the newspapers on behalf of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups, doctors, scientists, and advocates, arguing in favor of greater transparency about natural gas operations and their health effects.
“This case pitted the natural gas industry’s insistence on secrecy against the historic commitment of the courts to public access to judicial proceedings,” EarthJustice attorney Matthew Gerhart said in a prepared statement.
“The court’s ruling reaffirms the importance of public access to the courts. This is a victory for everyone who believes that we need more information about the environmental and health consequences of fracking,” Gerhart said.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Range Resources agreed to pay the Hallowich family $750,000, according to a summary of the settlement contained in the unsealed court records.
The settlement also established an arbitration process to assess any future claims of personal injury to the Hallowich’s minor children, Nathan and Alyson, that could arise from their exposure to gas-drilling activities, the Post-Gazette reports.