Judge won’t step aside from Range-Robinson suit
A Washington County judge will continue to hear a dispute between Range Resources Corp. and Robinson Township despite the Marcellus Shale driller’s request that he step aside.
Judge John F. DiSalle’s order, filed Monday, said the involvement of his wife, Diane, with the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness Group nearly two years ago “has not in any way affected the court’s ability to hear the case” fairly and impartially.
Diane DiSalle was involved with the group that collected more than 2,400 signatures to have a referendum placed on the November 2011 ballot to amend Peters Township’s home rule charter. It would have prohibited gas drilling and related gas drilling activity, such as the installation of pipelines and compressor stations. The measure was defeated at the polls.
“Such activity does not constitute a circumstance where the court’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned under the code of judicial conduct,” the order continued.
In an affidavit, Range’s spokesman Matt Pitzarella noted that in summer 2011, Diane DiSalle, who lives nearby, had knocked on his door and asked him to sign a petition for a drilling ban. He said he spoke with her for three hours before she left.
Pitzarella also claimed to have seen an anti-drilling sign in the couple’s yard prior to the election. DiSalle said they never had such a sign in their yard, although their neighbor did.
In addition, the Marcellus Shale awareness group is listed under Pennsylvania’s Department of State business entity filings as being “owned” by Diane DiSalle. The group maintains a Facebook page, but that page indicates the group was dissolved Feb. 2.
Range admitted it was aware of Diane DiSalle’s connection with the group since July 2011, and the company did not ask the judge to recuse himself in another case, MarkWest Liberty Midstream and Resources LLC and Range vs. Cecil Township Zoning Hearing Board, over which DiSalle presided from April 21, 2011, through Jan. 22 of this year, when he sided with the zoning board.
According to an order filed Monday, DiSalle reviewed the matter with the three other judges from the Washington County bench and concluded that “this is not a situation where a significant minority of the lay community might also reasonably question the court’s impartiality.”
Range is suing Robinson Township for failing to allow the company to begin gas operations on two properties it had leased for gas drilling. The company filed its lawsuit against the township Jan. 28, even before township supervisors voted to deny the gas extraction company two permits to drill for gas on the Parees property, 167 1/2 acres off Midway-Candor Road, and the Kendall property, an 84-acre tract at 1620 Valley View Road, Bulger. The board cited the company’s insufficient documents as its reason for the denials.
In its suit, Range contends the township has fabricated a number of issues, including the board’s “befuddlement” over the number of wells the company wishes to drill and its site plan. Range also opposed attorney John Smith acting as both the township’s counsel and hearing officer. Smith later recused himself, and Jonathan Kamin now represents the township on gas drilling issues.
Range claims the township has acted in bad faith and that its failure to comply with sections in the state’s Municipalities Planning Code means the conditional use Range is seeking has been approved.
In a companion order to the one in which DiSalle found that Range failed to meet its burden of presenting evidence that would require him to recuse himself from the Robinson Township case, he also scheduled a status conference for April 29.