Attorneys for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the natural gas industry tangled Tuesday afternoon in Washington County Court over the newspaper’s attempt to intervene in a long-standing legal dispute over the effects of an Amwell Township impoundment that was settled and made confidential in 2018.
Newspaper attorney Frederick N. Frank said the Post-Gazette was acting as the public’s representative in seeking access to the sealed court case.
“In most cases when the records are sealed, there’s no public notice,” Frank told President Judge Katherine B. Emery. “We always learn after the fact. A reporter would have to scour, on a daily basis, every docket to make sure the right to access was not being violated.”
Kimberly A. Brown, an attorney representing Range Resources Appalachia Inc., used several arguments to attack the Post-Gazette’s request to intervene, one of which was that the Post-Gazette is not a legal entity registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
A search of the web’s database of business entities within the state lists Post-Gazette Co. as “withdrawn and inactive.”
Frank told the judge the Post-Gazette is “one of the oldest newspapers in the nation. Your honor, if that’s an issue, we can amend” court documents to Block Communications.
The newspaper, which traces its origins to 1786 – long before business entities were required to register with the state – publishes a print edition five days a week and seven days online.
Brown contends it’s too late to do that, and she also claimed the newspaper is tardy in its petition to intervene, citing news articles published in the Post-Gazette that referred to a settlement and non-disclosure that were published last year.
Frank also argued that the Post-Gazette does not have to present a motive for wanting access to the settlement with Stacey Haney of a 2012 case which she brought on her own behalf and that of her children. Other plaintiffs in the case were Beth, John and Ashley Voyles, and Loren and Grace Kiskadden, all Amwell Township residents who claimed a leaking liner contaminated groundwater and soil at the nearby Yeager impoundment.
Frank noted that the Post-Gazette and Observer-Reporter in 2013 were successful in gaining access to a settlement reached with Range in the Chris and Stephanie Hallowich case, in which prominent critics of the natural gas industry obtained cash plus potential health monitoring and arbitration.
The settlement included language in which both sides agreed there were no health or environmental effects from natural gas drilling near the property.
Then-judge Paul Pozonsky ordered the case sealed in 2011, but Superior Court reversed his decision and sent the case back to Washington County Court after Pozonsky was no longer a member of the bench.
Brown argued that the Hallowich case did not set legal precedent and that the circumstances under which the newspapers intervened were substantially different from the Haney matter.
Also arguing against the Post-Gazette’s intervention in the Haney case were attorneys Alan Miller, representing EAP Industries Inc. of Atlasburg, and D. Matthew Jameson III, representing Red Oak Environmental Engineers and Microbac Laboratories Inc.
In February, the Post-Gazette initiated the case in Washington County Court indicating that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office had sent letters to attorneys that his office has “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County.”
An attorney for Stephanie Hallowich confirmed that month she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury convened in Pittsburgh, an exception to her promise not to comment on her family’s settlement.
In April, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” the 2018 book by journalist Eliza Griswold on the impact fracking had on the Haney family, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Emery took the matter under advisement.