Court document reveals Range Resources, other defendants agreed to $3 million settlement in Washington County contamination suit, The public document doesn’t specify how money was distributed among plaintiffs by Reid Frazier, June 4, 2019, State Impact PA
Range Resources and other defendants agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit last year with three Washington County families who alleged the natural gas drilling company contaminated their properties and made them sick, according to a court document obtained by The Allegheny Front and State Impact Pennsylvania.
The settlement, agreed to in January 2018, is sealed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is suing to have the agreement made public.
But terms of the settlement are spelled out in a court order dated Aug. 31, 2018 and signed by Washington County Court of Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery. The order was issued under seal but was publicly available over the course of at least two days, May 28 and May 29, on the Washington County Prothonotary’s Public Case File Database.
Washington County Prothonotary Joy Ranko said on May 30 that the order had not been uploaded into a public-facing database where the county stores its court records. She later told the Washington Observer-Reporter that the document was public because of a computer error.
On May 30, after learning that The Allegheny Front and State Impact had obtained the record, Emery issued an injunction against the news organizations, barring them from reporting on its contents, and setting a hearing date for Tuesday.
At the hearing Tuesday in Washington County common pleas court, Range told Emery it would publicly release settlement terms that apply to Range, and did not ask Emery to continue her order for the injunction.
Emery vacated the order.
[By pushing gag orders, judges & lawyers enable frac pollution and health harms to communities and families. All such gags and orders must be made illegal]
The Aug. 31 document does not say how much each of the eight individual plaintiffs were to receive, or how much Range and 10 other co-defendants in the case were to pay out.
The settlement includes:
-a blanket release of claims against Range and the co-defendants;
-a clause preventing the plaintiffs from making disparaging comments about the defendants; and
-language giving Range Resources the right of first refusal to buy the properties of Haney and her neighbor Beth Voyles, another plaintiff, unless Haney wishes to sell the property to Ashley Voyles, or the Voyleses wish to sell or transfer their property to their children.
The settlement marked a turning point in a long-standing legal dispute that pitted Range, which pioneered hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania, against Haney, Voyles, and another neighbor, Loren Kiskadden. In November, a few months after the settlement, Kiskadden died.
In 2009, Range built the Yeager site, which included a well pad, drill cuttings pit, and impoundment for fracking wastewater near the plaintiffs’ Amwell Township homes.
The plaintiffs began detecting foul odors in the air and the water in their homes, according to court records. Then they developed health symptoms. Haney’s son was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. Other symptoms reported by the plaintiffs to medical professionals included nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and skin rashes.
In 2012, Haney, Voyles and Kiskadden sued Range, claiming spills, leaks, and other activities at the site contaminated their air, ground and surface water, resulting in health impacts and the deaths of a dog and a goat.
The suit also alleged Range Resources and two contracted laboratories committed fraud and conspiracy by manipulating test results to obscure their findings from the plaintiffs.
In 2014, the state Department of Environmental Protection imposed a $4.15 million penalty on the company for violations at six waste water impoundments in Washington County, including one at the Yeager site.
The case was detailed by journalist Eliza Griswold in the book “Amity and Prosperity,” which was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. The book details Haney’s eventual decision to move her family out of the house over fears of living near a contaminated site. Haney still owns that house. Voyles stayed in her home.
Range denied wrongdoing and fought the lawsuit in court for six years. The two sides eventually entered mediation and agreed to a “global, comprehensive settlement” on Jan. 19, 2018, according to the Aug. 31 order. The settlement included a clause that both sides would “draft, finalize and execute” a final settlement agreement. But that process stalled and, seven months later, the two sides were back in front of Emery.
In her Aug. 31 order, Emery ruled that the term sheet both sides agreed to in January constituted an “enforceable agreement.” She ordered Range to pay the settlement total and the plaintiffs to drop all legal claims against the defendants. [Still believe in “Justice?”]
It also noted that both sides were to retain their records, to comply with a request made by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office in an Aug. 16, 2018 letter. It stated the Attorney General’s office had “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County” and that “one of the potential criminal investigations involves your respective clients.”
Last week, Emery heard arguments in the Post-Gazette case to have the settlement unsealed. She was expected to make a ruling on whether the newspaper’s motion to unseal can go forward.
Griswold’s “Amity and Prosperity” was published in June 2018. While it doesn’t disclose the amount Haney and Voyles received in the settlement, it reports “the amount they received left both of them feeling angry and defeated” but also offered them “a chance to move on.”
$3 Million Settlement Revealed In High-Profile Fracking Case by Reid Frazier, June 4, 2019, The Allegheny Front
In an unusual event, a legal settlement in a high-profile fracking case has been made public because of a computer error. The document, dated Aug. 31, 2018, shows that the gas drilling company Range Resources and other defendants agreed to pay $3 million to three Washington County, Pa., families who alleged that nearby fracking contaminated their properties and made them sick.
The court document was issued under seal but was discovered last week in a public database by a reporter with the public radio program The Allegheny Front and the StateImpact Pennsylvania project. After issuing an injunction, Judge Katherine B. Emery on Tuesday ruled that it could be published. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is suing to have the entire agreement made public.
In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection imposed a $4.15 million penalty on the company for violations at six wastewater impoundments in Washington County, including the one near the Haney and Voyles homes.
Griswold’s book details Haney’s eventual decision to move her family out of their house over fears of living near a contaminated site. Haney still owns that house. Voyles stayed in her home despite her struggles there.
Terms of the settlement
The newly public document does not say how much each of the eight individual plaintiffs were to receive or how much Range and 10 other co-defendants in the case were to pay out. In a separate release, Range said its settlement is for a total of $1.88 million to eight individuals. …
After Tuesday’s court decision, Range Resources provided a redacted version of its settlement. In a statement, the company said, “As we believe the evidence in this case proved, our operations at the Yeager well site did not impact the plaintiffs water supplies or cause any adverse health impacts.”
Despite this settlement and others, there may be more fallout from claims of how Pennsylvania’s fracking boom has affected residents. The state’s attorney general has empaneled a grand jury to investigate possible “environmental crimes” in Washington County.
The AG’s office has asked both sides in the Haney v. Range case to retain their records, explaining that “one of the potential criminal investigations involves your respective clients.” Another woman who had also sued the gas driller has testified before the grand jury.
After Tuesday’s court decision, an attorney for Haney and the other families issued a statement that said because of this “ongoing criminal Grand Jury investigation, we are not in a position to comment at this time.”
Radio reporter obtains copy of confidential natural gas settlement, but court stifles him by Barbara Miller, May 31, 2019, Observer-Reporter
A reporter who covers the energy beat for a Pittsburgh NPR-affiliated radio station obtained a copy of a confidential settlement involving Stacey Haney, but a Washington County judge enjoined him and others from revealing its contents.
Reid Frazier, reporter for The Allegheny Front, StateImpact Pennsylvania and WESA 90.FM, Pittsburgh, intended to reveal sealed contents from the case, but he was halted by an order from Washington County President Judge Katherine B. Emery.
According to her order, she was made aware of Frazier’s pending news story Thursday morning by attorneys for Haney and Range Resources-Appalachia LLC.
Emery, who is also presiding over a case filed by attorneys for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is demanding access to the confidential settlement, scheduled a hearing on the matter involving the radio station for Tuesday.
Washington County Prothonotary Joy Schury Ranko attributed the circumstances to a software glitch that obscured the document from view within the court system but, she said, “unbeknownst to us,” allowed it to remain on view to those using the OnBase system available to the public.
“You can bet it won’t happen again,” said Ranko, who notified both the the county’s information technology department and its vendor.
Emery ordered documents in Haney’s case, which alleged she and her children were harmed by chemicals leaking from Range’s Yeager impoundment in Amwell Township, to be sealed on Aug. 30, 2018. …
WESA’s News Director Patrick Doyle responded to an emailed request for comment with the message, “We don’t have a comment at this time.”