Court Lifts Settlement Secrecy in Pennsylvania Fracking Case

March 27, 2013

A Pennsylvania judge ordered the unsealing of court records in a settlement of a case in which a family complained that they had been injured by a drilling company conducting "fracking" operations.

Once the case was settled in July 2011, the court ordered it sealed — as is often done in damage settlements. That order was challenged in court by two newspapers covering the case: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter. (Full disclosure: Society of Environmental Journalists President Don Hopey covered the case for the Post-Gazette.)

Judge Debbie O'Dell-Seneca on March 20, 2013, found that secrecy did not serve the public interest, and ordered the settlement record unsealed.

The unsealed documents revealed that the potential plaintiffs, the Hallowich family, had received $750,000 from frackers Range Resources.

The case is important in several respects — even beyond the broader controversy over sealing of civil settlements. Drilling companies claim that fracking opponents can not produce evidence that fracking has harmed human health or property — but the scarcity of such evidence is partly the result of sealed court settlements.

The main company involved in the Pennsylvania case, Range Resources, is one of the major fracking outfits nationwide, and has been accused of high-handed tactics, according to several accounts. For example, when a Texas landowner complained to federal regulators that a Range well had contaminated his well, Range turned around and sued the landowner for trying to "harm" Range. The company stopped an EPA investigation into a Texas contamination incident — partly by hiring former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who is also a former Chairman of the National Governors Association and former General Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.


 

This is one of the stories in the March 27, 2013 issue of SEJ's biweekly WatchDog. Find the rest of the stories and past issues here.