Newspapers Can Argue to Open Records in Fracking Suit

Newspapers Can Argue to Open Records in Fracking Suit by Jon Hurdle, December 11, 2012, New York Times
Advocates for greater openness for Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry are heartened by a state appeals court’s decision to allow two newspapers to press for the unsealing of records in a lawsuit brought against the industry by a western Pennsylvania couple. A three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled on Friday that a lower court erred in flatly denying a request from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa., for the unsealing of the records in the case. The couple, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich of Mount Pleasant Township, had sued four natural gas companies and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, claiming their family’s health and property had been damaged by drilling operations near their home. The companies and the couple settled the lawsuit earlier this year, with the terms left undisclosed. The court on Friday ordered the Washington County Common Pleas court to hold hearings on the petitions for the unsealing of the records. It noted that the August 2011 hearing at which the record was sealed was held three days earlier than scheduled without official notification of the change of date. The lower court barred two Post-Gazette reporters from attending the hearing and later denied petitions from both newspapers to unseal the records, saying the requests were untimely. Critics of Pennsylvania’s booming shale gas industry have long claimed that energy companies have not fully disclosed the chemicals used in their controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process, which allows them to harvest gas from vast reserves in the Marcellus Shale.

“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,” Matthew Gerhart, a lawyer for Earthjustice, said. … Colin Fitch, an attorney for the Observer-Reporter, said that lawyers for the plaintiffs would press for an early hearing by the Common Pleas Court. “It allows us to be heard, and we now know that we are going to get a decision on the merits,” he said of the ruling. [Emphasis added]

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