Pennsylvania Attorney General (AG) Josh Shapiro’s office is said to be conducting an investigation of the environmental impacts caused by unconventional natural gas drilling operations in the southwestern part of the state.

AG spokesman Joe Grace said he couldn’t “confirm or deny any investigation.” However, court records indicate that an investigation is underway, and Washington County residents living near shale operations in the state have had contact with the AG’s office.

Stephanie Hallowich, whose family filed a lawsuit against Range Resources Corp. and other defendants in 2010, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, testified before a statewide grand jury in Pittsburgh last month, her former attorney Peter Villari told NGI’s Shale Daily.

“We have no idea whether the AG’s investigation even relates to that civil action, none,” he said of his firm. “But when Stephanie received the subpoena, out of an abundance of caution, she called me.” Hallowich notified Range and several other defendants in the case as required by a nondisclosure agreement the family signed after it reached a settlement. None of the defendants, Villari said, objected to her testimony, which is permitted if she is subpoenaed by authorities.

The Hallowich’s $750,000 settlement was revealed in 2013 after news media pushed the county court to unseal it. Range’s unconventional drilling operations in Washington County allegedly caused the family harm. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which first reported the AG’s investigation, is also pushing to unseal court documents in another case that was settled with Range related to widely covered environmental issues at the company’s former Yeager impoundment in Amwell Township.

According to the motion filed in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas to unseal documents in the case, the Post-Gazette discovered that Shapiro had sent letters to attorneys in the case informing them that his office has “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County.”

State regulators in 2014 fined Range $4.15 million for a series of violations at its impoundments in the region. At the time, it was the largest financial penalty ever levied against an unconventional operator. The pits, capable of holding millions of gallons of water, have proved contentious in Appalachia, where some residents have complained of odors, possible contamination and the amount of time they remain in service.

Under a consent order with the state, Range was required to close most of the leaky impoundments and upgrade two others. It’s unclear if the company has been contacted by the AG’s office regarding the lawsuits it’s faced in the region.

A grand jury’s deliberations are not public. Terry Madonna, director for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, said an investigation into private industry is not at all uncharacteristic of the AG’s office or outside of its scope.

The oil and gas industry has had to deal with investigations in the state before. In 2015, ExxonMobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy Inc. reached a settlement with then-AG Kathleen Kane’s office nearly three years after criminal charges were filed for an alleged discharge of wastewater at a drilling site in 2010. The company paid a civil penalty and provided additional funds for environmental projects.

Kane also filed a wide-ranging lawsuit the same year against Chesapeake Energy Corp. and its affiliates for deceptive business practices. The complaint was filed after more than a year of investigation that involved hundreds of landowners and industry cooperation. That litigation, which Grace said is “live, active and ongoing” under Shapiro, seeks restitution and civil penalties from Chesapeake, which has been accused of deducting post-production expenses from royalty checks to cover marketing costs.

Under Shapiro, however, the AG’s office has been particularly active. Since he took office in 2017, Shapiro, a Democrat, has released a grand jury report alleging sexual abuse of minors in Catholic dioceses across the state that garnered national attention. He also recently entered a long simmering battle for market share between two major health insurers in the state by filing a lawsuit against one of them and he has repeatedly targeted the Trump administration’s policies in multiple lawsuits.

“He’s one of the more aggressive attorneys general in modern history,” Madonna said. “He’s gone after the Catholic church for sexual abuse, he’s been involved in a variety of other issues at both the state and national level. I think he’s been -- right from the get go -- very, very clear that he’s going to be an activist attorney general. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”