An appellate court in Pennsylvania on Friday ordered a lower court to reconsider a request by two newspapers to have court records in a water contamination case unsealed.

The parent companies of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper based in Washington, PA, had petitioned the Washington County Court of Common Pleas to unseal the settlement agreement reached in the case Hallowich v. Range Resources Corp. (No. C-63-CV-201003954).

According to court records, 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 hydraulic fracturing (fracking) contaminated their property.

The two sides in the Hallowich case agreed to settle the matter one year later, and they agreed to a “hearing in closed court or in chambers” 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 then, 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. The petitions were denied on Jan. 31, 2012 on the grounds that they were “untimely.”

“We agreed with the trial court that the [newspapers’] petitions to intervene and to unseal the record [in the Hallowich case] were not filed during the ‘pendency’ of the matter, as required by [Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure No.] 2327, as the matter had been settled,” wrote Superior Court Justices James Fitzgerald, Judith Olson and Paula Ott. “We hold that the [trial] court should have liberally construed Rule 2327 and accepted as timely filed both [newspapers’] petitions to intervene and to unseal the record.”

It wasn’t clear when the trial court would reconsider the matter. Pozonsky retired this summer from the Washington County Court of Common Pleas.

In October 2011, Pozonsky ruled that a controversial referendum to ban fracking in Peters Township could be placed on the ballot because the court lacked the authority to challenge the issue. He warned the township that it could face multiple lawsuits — from oil and natural gas companies and landowners alike — if voters enacted such a ban (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6, 2011; Oct. 3, 2011).