Range won’t appeal unsealing of gas drilling settlement

March 21, 2013

Range Resources Corp. does not plan to appeal a Washington County Court decision to open a court record that had been under seal for nearly a year and a half in the case of a family that was seeking damages, a spokesman said Thursdsay.

Parts of the record that were unsealed showed that the total settlement with Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, formerly of 31 McCarrell Road, Hickory, was $750,000. The settlement also set aside $10,000 for each of the two Hallowich children, who have no medical problems related to their exposure to natural gas drilling activities around their former home, but sets up an arbitration process to “assess and adjudicate” any possible future claims.

“Range does not have concerns with the judge’s decision, which we greatly respect, to make the court file public,” wrote Matt Pitzarella, Range Resources Corp. spokesman, in an email.

“This information combined with the vast public data accessible through the DEP’s extensive investigations should provide the public with even greater clarity that shale gas is being developed safely and responsibly.”

Attorneys for the Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette set a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline for their legal counterparts from the natural gas industry in the case to provide a document missing from the newly opened file.

Pitzarella said late Thursday afternoon, “Our counsel will respond accordingly.” The settlement agreement in the Hallowich case, marked “Exhibit B,” was not in the record when the newspapers’ lawyers examined it.

“We also will request an investigation into the settlement agreement’s absence from the petition,” wrote Observer Publishing Co. attorney Colin Fitch and Frederick N. Frank, attorney for the Post-Gazette.

They sent a similar letter via facsimile to Peter Villari, the Montgomery County attorney representing the Hallowiches.

Meanwhile, the Earthjustice law firm of Philadelphia, which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case, rated a footnote in the 32-page decision.

The natural gas companies first objected to Earthjustice presenting the brief, claiming that rules of the Pennsylvania courts did not permit trial courts to accept these types of briefs.

However, at oral arguments, they recanted because no such rule of exclusion exists.

The judge found that the litigants “sufficiently addressed the legal issues” of the case, and although the Earthjustice brief is part of the record, it “remains unread.”

In a statement, Earthjustice attorney Matthew Gerhart said, “This case pitted the natural gas industry’s insistence on secrecy against the historic commitment of the courts to public access to judicial proceedings. The court’s ruling reaffirms the importance of public access to the courts. This is a victory for everyone who believes that we need more information about the environmental and health consequences of fracking.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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