A county judge in Pennsylvania has ordered court records from a water contamination case involving several companies that operate in the Marcellus Shale unsealed and available for public view.
According to reports, Debbie O'Dell Seneca, president judge for the Washington County Court of Common Pleas, cited the importance of transparency in the legal system in ordering the unsealing of documents from the case Hallowich v. Range Resources Corp. (No. C-63-CV-201003954).
Last December, an appellate court ordered the county court to reconsider a request by the parent companies the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper based in Washington, PA, to unseal documents from the Hallowich case (see Shale Daily, Dec. 11, 2012).
Court records show Chris and Stephanie Hallowich filed a lawsuit against Range, MarkWest Energy Partners LP, MarkWest Energy Group LLC and Laurel Mountain Midstream -- a joint venture of Williams Partners LP (51% owner, operator) and Chevron Corp. (49%) -- on May 27, 2010, alleging that fluids from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) contaminated their property.
The unsealed documents reveal that Range agreed to pay the Hallowich family $750,000 to settle the lawsuit. The company also agreed to have any personal injury claims from the family's two minor children referred to an arbitrator, according to the Post-Gazette.
"[Range] does not have concerns with the judge's decision, which we greatly respect, to make the court file public," the company said in a statement Wednesday to the newspaper. "This information combined with the vast public data accessible through the [state Department of Environmental Protection's] extensive investigations should provide the public with even greater clarity that shale gas is being developed safely and responsibly."
The two sides in the Hallowich case agreed to settle the matter behind closed doors on Aug. 23, 2011. On the date of the hearing, two Post-Gazette reporters requested, but were denied, permission to attend the settlement conference. Judge Paul Pozonsky on the day of the conference signed and filed a joint motion from both sides in the Hallowich case to seal the record.
The Post-Gazette filed a petition to intervene on Sept. 6, 2011; the Observer-Reporter joined the motion one week later. Pozonsky denied their petitions on Jan. 31, 2012 on the grounds that they were "untimely," but the state Superior Court overruled him. Pozonsky has since retired from the bench.