Newspapers seeking settlement disclosure to get speedy hearing, Ruffalo: Gas industry hiding behind deals

Hearing granted to unseal drilling settlement by Linda Metz, December 19, 2012, Observer Reporter
For more than a year, the Observer-Reporter and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been fighting to gain access to a sealed legal settlement between a Mt. Pleasant Township couple and a group of gas drilling companies. Their quest began in Washington County Common Pleas Court. It then made its way to the state Commonwealth Court and then Superior Court, before being sent back here for deposition. On Wednesday, attorneys for the newspapers asked President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to grant an expedited half-day hearing to on their arguments in favor of unsealing the legal settlement between Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream.

“I am painfully aware of this case,” said O’Dell Seneca, adding she had familiarized herself with the case knowing it was headed back to the county court from the state Superior Court, which found former Judge Paul Pozonsky had erred when he denied the newspapers a chance to at least present their arguments for unsealing of the legal settlement. Before setting a hearing date for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 18, the judge briefly questioned the attorneys on the reasoning behind Pozonsky’s sealing of the settlement when neither the Hallowiches nor the drilling companies had requested it be sealed in its entirety. Instead, attorneys only sought to seal the portion involving Hallowiches’ two minor children. “My understanding is that everything should be open,” she said. “I don’t understand what happened here.”

In the meantime, O’Dell Seneca asked the attorneys to discuss exactly what portion of the settlement is at issue and possibly reach an agreement in the matter before returning for the hearing. The gas drilling companies, however, have until Jan. 7 to appeal the Superior Court’s ruling. The Hallowiches had claimed that nearby drilling operations, a compressor station and a gas processing plant made their property worthless and posed health risks to their family. Their lawsuit was settled Aug. 23, 2011, following a closed-door meeting in Pozonsky’s chambers. The case file was immediately sealed, and all parties were forbidden to discuss any portion of the agreement. During the August 2011 session, a P-G reporter openly objected to the sealing of the settlement. The newspapers contend sealing the record is in violation of the common law rights of the media. On Sept. 6, 2011, the P-G petitioned the court to intervene, and the O-R joined the petition. Pozonsky contended the newspapers should have sought to intervene in the case before final action was taken to seal the settlement. In its ruling, however, the three-member Superior Court panel found Pozonsky should have more “liberally” construed a state rule and accepted arguments from the newspapers. Pozonsky suddenly retired from office June 30 amid reports that he was the subject of a state grand jury investigation. He has since moved to Alaska.

Newspapers seeking settlement disclosure to get speedy hearing by Don Hopey, December 19, 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A Washington County judge has granted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s motion for an expedited hearing on whether to unseal an August 2011 settlement agreement between Marcellus Shale gas development companies and members of a family who claimed drilling damaged their health. Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ruled quickly Wednesday morning to grant the newspaper’s motion and scheduled a hearing for Jan. 18, saying she wasn’t sure why the settlement was sealed in the first place. The Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter are seeking access to the settlement agreement, filed in a civil suit that alleged that the health of Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and their two children was harmed by air pollution and water contamination caused by Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations adjacent to their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant Township. The agreement settling the Hallowichs’ lawsuit against Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, includes a non-disclosure clause that prevents the family from speaking about the settlement or talking publicly about shale gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing. [Emphasis added]

Ruffalo: Gas industry hiding behind deals by Don Hopey, December 18, 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Actor Mark Ruffalo, an outspoken and longtime opponent of shale gas fracking who is in southwestern Pennsylvania to work on a movie, said lawsuit settlements that prevent those involved from discussing their problems are “un-American” and infringe on the public’s need to know about drilling impacts that could damage human health and the environment. During a break in shooting scenes in Washington County last week for the movie “Fair Hill Project,” Mr. Ruffalo met privately with Stephanie Hallowich, a onetime anti-fracking activist. She has been silenced by a nondisclosure agreement contained in the August 2011 settlement of a civil lawsuit against Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, that claimed drilling operations around her family’s farm in Mount Pleasant, Washington County, had harmed their health and property value. “If the gas industry is safe as they claim, why are they trying to hide the stories of people exposed to it firsthand?” Mr. Ruffalo said. “She’s bound by that nondisclosure agreement. But those agreements bear witness to what the rest of the population of that area should be privy to know. That information has been muted and hidden, and that is outrageous.” But Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the company stands behind previously publicized environmental, health and safety reviews that determined Range’s operations didn’t harm the Hallowiches. “It’s hard to react without also knowing where Iron Man, Thor and the rest of the Avengers stand regarding clean-burning natural gas,” Mr. Pitzarella said. “We have to assume that Captain America supports domestic energy.”

A resident of upstate New York, Mr. Ruffalo has spoken often in support of groups opposed to fracking and shale gas drilling nationally and in that state. He said environmental organizations there are asking the state attorney general to compile a list of cases involving non-disclosure agreements to document their correlation to areas of the state where shale drilling is taking place. The Hallowich settlement, which contained a non-disclosure agreement, was sealed by a Washington County Court judge. But earlier this month the state Superior Court, acting on a petition filed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter, argued that the case file should be unsealed and the county court erred in denying the papers’ request to intervene in the case. Frederick N. Frank, an attorney representing the Post-Gazette, said he will present a petition Wednesday asking the Washington County Court to expedite unsealing of the case. Mr. Ruffalo said he would like to get out into the region to visit shale gas drilling sites and people affected by the shale gas development activities, but whether he can will depend on the movie’s shooting schedule. He said his discussion with Ms. Hallowich could only generally touch on what happened to her so as not to violate the non-disclosure agreement. “I knew her story already. It’s endemic. It’s the same story you can hear in Dimock, Susquehanna County, and many other areas across the country where people are being marginalized and victimized and put into a position that they have to take their stories off the market before they can move forward with their lives,” Mr. Ruffalo said. “Those people are backed into a corner where their property is useless and their health is in peril. “She obviously could not get too much into the particulars,” he said. “She only told me she is glad not to be living there anymore.” [Emphasis added]

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