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Worker sues well services company over East Finley well pad fire

A lawsuit filed by a worker who reports ongoing injuries from a 2018 fire at an East Findlay Township shale gas well pad accuses an oil field company of causing his injuries through its “normal and routine practice” of fueling dangerously hot pumps while leaving them running.

The lawsuit was filed in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Roger Isaacs and Keri Dawn Norman, of Clarksburg, W.Va. It names Texas-based U.S. Well Services Inc. and a local subsidiary as defendants, saying the entities were in charge of operations at CNX’s Morris 31 well pad on June 27, 2018, when the fire started about 10 p.m.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, blames the practice known as “hot fueling” – refilling the tanks on the pumps of the hydraulic fracturing wells without halting the operation to turn them off – for injuries that Isaacs suffered during the incident. The “inherently dangerous” method was allegedly a “normal and routine” way of doing business for U.S. Well Services, according to the lawsuit,

Representative at the company’s headquarters didn’t return a phone call and email requesting comment. The couple’s attorney, John Bitonti, didn’t return a message left at Yablonski, Costello and Leckie, the firm where he works.

Bitonti wrote that Isaacs was at the Newland School Road well site as a crew leader for the fuel supplier Sprague Energy, which does business as Coen Energy.

As Isaacs finished filling one tank with the low-sulfur diesel he was delivering, he uncapped a tank on the next pump. When he did so, “diesel fuel spewed from somewhere ..., sprayed into his eyes and, contacted a portion of heated pump surface and ignited, resulting in (Isaac’s) injuries and damages,” Bitonti wrote.

Diesel ignites on surfaces with temperatures of 842 degrees, according to the lawsuit. It always ignites on surfaces above 932 degrees. Bitonti added that the pump turbos, which were located right over the fuel tank fills, “are believed to have reached temperatures of at least 1,200 degrees,” based on how long the pumps had been running and the fact that the fuel caught fire.

Emergency officials said at the time that an unnamed worker had been taken to Washington Hospital. He’d been released after being treated because of fuel that had splashed on his face. An estimated 4,000 gallons of fuel burned. Firefighters had the fire under control in about two hours, but were at the site until 3:30 a.m.

Three months before the fire, U.S. Well Services was given an award for “excellence in well completion” during the Northeast Oil and Gas Awards gala dinner in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Department of Labor records show Sprague Energy later agreed to a $12,934 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Officials cited a recommendation that engines be turned off when refueling them. Sprague isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit. Neither is CNX.

The lawsuit includes claims of negligence and strict liability on Isaacs’ behalf. His injuries are “sprains and strains to his neck and back and irritation and visual disturbance to his eyes.” He also experiences anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “These injuries have aggravated pre-existing conditions,” Bitonti added. The lawsuit alleges loss of consortium on Norman’s behalf.

Each of five counts of the suit requests more than $50,000.

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Former Monessen mayor files lawsuit over alleged Sunshine Law violations

A contentious Monessen reorganizational meeting is now the subject of a second lawsuit over alleged Sunshine Law violations.

The former mayor of Monessen, Lou Mavrakis, filed a lawsuit in Westmoreland County Court alleging Mayor Matt Shorraw did not allow public comments during the meeting and failed to provide an agenda before the meeting. Shorraw and City Council members Gilbert Coles and Donald Gregor are also accused of illegally firing the city’s solicitor and city administrator, and hiring replacements.

That was the first meeting Shorraw had attended since May 2018. The first-term mayor missed more than 40 meetings, contending, among other things, that he was threatened. Coles, a Shorraw ally, had attended only one meeting since February 2018.

Gregor, who was elected in November, was sworn in at the Jan. 6 meeting.

During a public comment period on agenda items during that meeting, Ron Mozer and others attempted to question Shorraw about his absences. A second public comment period scheduled for the end of the meeting on any business was not held.

Like Mavrakis, Mozer filed a suit contending similar Sunshine Law violations.

“I sat in that chair for years. I’m 82 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like that in all my life,” Mavrakis said. “Everything about that meeting was completely illegal.”

Each vote generated heated debates, and Shorraw was peppered with questions by both council members and the public. When Shorraw was asked at the meeting why he made a motion to fire the solicitor, Shorraw said simply, “We are moving in a new direction” and did not answer follow-up questions.

Mavrakis described the meeting as “complete chaos” and said it was an embarrassment to the city.

“It was really, you can’t say it was a comedy because it was so bad,” he said. “It can’t get any worse than that.”

Tim Witt, who was hired as the city’s solicitor during the meeting, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. The lawsuit asks the court to declare the Jan. 6 meeting illegal and reverse all actions taken during the meeting.

The lawsuit further asks Shorraw, Coles and Gregor to pay a fine of $500 each.

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Consol, its former president settle discrimination case

Katharine Fredriksen, former president of Consol Energy Inc., and the Southpointe-based company reached a settlement on her gender-discrimination case last Friday, three days before the trial was to begin.

Details of the settlement are not available. U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan received an email last Friday advising her of the agreement, according to the online federal docket. She canceled the trial that had been scheduled for Jan. 27 in Pittsburgh.

Fredriksen, who was fired in December 2017, filed a complaint in federal court in March 2018, claiming gender discrimination. She asserted that she was paid less than male managers in equivalent positions at Consol and discriminated against under the federal Equal Pay Act.

She was an executive since her arrival at Consol in January 2011, as senior vice president of environmental strategy and regulatory affairs. Fredriksen, according to court papers, claimed she was given additional responsibilities and, in 2014, was promoted to senior vice president of health, safety and environmental affairs. She was promoted again in 2015 to a senior vice president position.

In early 2017, the company decided it would split its coal and gas divisions and call them, respectively, Consol Energy Inc. and CNX Resources Corp. That July – before the split – Nick DeIuliis, chief executive officer at the time, appointed Fredriksen president of the “new” coal operation. Consol became its own publicly traded company in mid-November.

Three weeks later – on Dec. 4, 2017 – Consol CEO Jimmy Brock dismissed her, five days after she started in her new position.

The two sides, according to court documents, were in conflict over the reason. Consol maintained that it wanted to eliminate the coal president’s position, which “was an unnecessary expense for the company.” Fredrikson, however, claimed that her repeated complaints about “this gender disparity” in pay led to her dismissal. She said she registered her first complaint in July 2017, and did so again that August, September and October.

Consol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Testimony coming? Abrupt acquittal? Trump trial edges on

WASHINGTON – Senate jurors peppered President Donald Trump’s defenders and accusers with final questions at his impeachment trial Thursday ahead of a crucial vote on calling witnesses, the focus shifting from details of the charges to whether it was time to simply acquit and conclude the trial.

The vote on witnesses, expected Friday, could lead to an abrupt end of the trial with the expected acquittal. Or, less likely, it could bring weeks more of argument as Democrats press to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and others.

Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators who will decide Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats said tried to cheat in the 2016 election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insisted were never more than a partisan attack.

“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. Americans, he said, know what it takes for a fair trial and won’t stand for anything less.

Trump attorney Eric Herschmann countered that Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in the 2020 election.

“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is Enough. Stop all of this.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is toiling to keep Friday’s vote on schedule even as the trial is unearthing fresh evidence from Bolton’s new book and raising alarms among Democrats and some Republicans about a Trump attorney’s controversial defense.

In a day-after tweet, Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, complained about the portrayal of his testimony Wednesday when he said a president is essentially immune from impeachment if he believes his actions to be in the “national interest.”

That idea left even some of Trump’s top allies backing away, including Dershowitz himself.

“They characterized my argument as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything,” the retired professor said Thursday. “I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest.”

His words Wednesday night: “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected is in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Asked about it as one of the first questions Thursday, Democrat Schiff, said, “Have we learned nothing in the last half century?”

Schiff drew on the lessons of the Nixon era to warn of a “normalization of lawlessness” in the Trump presidency.

“That argument – if the president says it it can’t be illegal – failed when Richard Nixon was forced to resign,” Schiff told the senators. “But that argument may succeed here, now.”

Trump was impeached by House last month on charges that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say Trump asked he vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, temporarily halting American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

“This is not a banana republic,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., rejecting the White House counsel’s suggestion there was nothing wrong with seeking foreign election interference.

Democrats played a video showing the many times Trump called on Russia or China to intervene in U.S. politics, voicing his own belief such information could be helpful in a campaign.

The president has argued repeatedly that his dealings with Ukraine have been “perfect.”

Even though McConnell has not yet locked down the votes, the calendar he engineered at the start of the trial two weeks ago is now proving immovable as Democrats are pressing hard to force the Senate to call more witnesses to testify.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have expressed interest in hearing from Bolton and the others. But their votes may not be enough.

In a Senate split 53-47 with a Republican majority, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the chamber and fielding senators’ questions for the trial, could break a tie, but that seems unlikely.

The chief justice did exercise authority Thursday with a stunning rebuttal to a question posed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky designed to expose the name of the still anonymous whistleblower whose complain about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s new president led to the impeachment inquiry.

Roberts had communicated through his staff to McConnell’s office that he did not want to read the whistleblower’s name, according to a Republican unauthorized to discuss the private conversation and granted anonymity.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” he said.

Senators have dispatched with nearly 100 queries Wednesday and dozens more on Thursday during the final argiuments.

Trump’s team says the House’s 28,000-page case against the president and the 17 witnesses – current and former national security officials, ambassadors and others who testified in the House proceedings – are sufficient.

Instead, Trump’s lawyers focused some of their time Thursday refloating allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., responding to one of the questions said the Bidens have little to tell the Senate about Trump’s efforts to “shake down” Ukraine for his own campaign.

Democrats argued Bolton’s forthcoming book cannot be ignored. It contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the Bidens – the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment. Trump denies saying such a thing.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged it’s “an uphill battle” to bring four GOP senators to vote for witnesses but said, “We’re still hopeful.”

The White House has blocked its officials from testifying in the proceedings and on Wednesday it released a letter to Bolton’s attorney objecting to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton resigned last September – Trump says he was fired – and he and his attorney have insisted the book does not contain any classified information.