Previously sealed records are now available in a high-profile drilling contamination case in Washington County. An order to unseal the records was entered Wednesday the county’s Court of Common Pleas by President Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca. Judge O’Dell-Seneca reversed an earlier decision to seal the records. In the order she stated that Range Resources’ arguments to keep the records from public view, based on privacy rights, had no merit.
In December, a Pennsylvania appeals court had ruled in favor of two newspapers seeking to unseal court records in Hallowich v. Range Resources. The case is one of the most closely watched cases involving claims of health impacts and property damage against a Marcellus Shale gas driller. But when the case was settled, the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County sealed all the records at the request of Range Resources. Reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had been barred by court employees from observing a hearing that had been held several days before it was listed on the public docket. The paper’s publisher sued, and was later joined by another daily newspaper, the Observer-Reporter.
In a ruling issued in December, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania said the lower trial court erred in not considering the motion to unseal court records. The trial court had dismissed the newspaper’s motion because it was filed after the case was closed. The Superior Court ordered the Court of Common Pleas to take a look at the newspaper’s requests to unseal the record, and rule based on the merits of the case. On Wednesday, the Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the newspapers to unseal the records, saying the gas driller’s privacy arguments had no merit and the public had a right to know details of the case. StateImpact Pennsylvania has posted all 971 pages of the court document here.
Matthew Gerhart is an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that filed a brief in support of the newspapers.
“As a result of this order we can now look through [case records] and see if there’s any information that’s relevant to the health impacts of natural gas drilling,” said Gerhart.
An initial review of the unsealed records show that in the summer of 2011 defendants Range Resources, MarkWest Energy and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners reached an agreement with the Hallowich family to pay $750,000 to settle the case.
The records are not available in electronic form, but must be accessed by a visit to the courthouse, which charges $.25 a page.