Range Resources and other defendants agreed last year to a $3 million settlement with landowners who claimed the company's operations at an Amwell Township well site contaminated their property and caused them health problems.
The gas driller released a "term sheet" on Tuesday that showed the outcome of mediation early last year through which the Texas-based company was responsible for $1.88 million of that pact, which ended a 2012 lawsuit concerning the Yeager site.
Range's attorneys declared the company's plans to do so during a Tuesday hearing that Washington County President Judge Katherine B. Emery had scheduled after she discovered a reporter had found and copied an ostensibly sealed memorandum order, signed by the judge on Aug. 30, that detailed the pact the company and other defendants had made with the plaintiffs to settle the litigation.
Following Range's announcement of its plans to reveal details of the settlement, Emery also vacated a temporary injunction that had purportedly barred reporter Reid Frazier and other journalists from publishing the information from that document. Frazier – who works for the public-media entities Allegheny Front and StateImpact – had found the document in publicly available electronic records in the county prothonotary's office last week before he contacted Range and the law firm Smith Butz, which represented the plaintiffs, for comment.
Attorney David Strassburger, who represented Frazier and his employers during the hearing, argued that to block his clients from reporting on the document would amount to an unconstitutional case of prior restraint.
"There is just almost never a reason to stifle publication before it occurs," Strassburger said afterward. "That is precisely what our founders didn't want to happen. Everyone is responsible for what he or she says after he or she says it. The press is constitutionally entitled to publish, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, and no one can stop that in advance."
Last week, Prothonotary Joy Schury Ranko blamed a software problem for Frazier's ability to access a confidential settlement document in a public courthouse computer.
Range redacted the amounts contributed by other defendants from the three-page document it released this week.
Meanwhile, Allegheny Front and StateImpact published Emery's seven-page order from August on their websites.
An accompanying article noted the terms included "language giving Range Resources the right of first refusal to buy the properties of Haney and her neighbor Beth Voyles, another plaintiff, unless Haney wishes to sell the property to Ashley Voyles, or the Voyleses wish to sell or transfer their property to their children."
Stacey Haney, the Voyleses and Loren Kiskadden – who died late last year – alleged that Range and other had caused spills, emissions, leaks and other discharges that had negatively affected their respective properties near the Yeager site, including by contaminating their groundwater. They also accused Range and laboratories it had hired to perform water testing of engaging in fraud.
Journalist Eliza Griswold's book about the case, Amity and Prosperity," was awarded a Pullitzer Prize for general nonfiction this year.
The Yeager site contained a drill cuttings pit, condensate tanks and a mud processing facility – described in at least one filing by the plaintiffs' attorneys as having been "unpermitted and illegal" – and a well pad. An impoundment also located there was one of five that Range agreed to close in a 2014 consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that also included a fine of more than $4 million.
Plaintiffs' attorney John Smith declined comment, apparently alluding to an ongoing inquiry into oil and gas operations in the region by state prosecutors.
“While we are aware of Judge Emery’s decision today to unseal the order of August 30, 2018, which outlines previously undisclosed settlement terms, due to our firm’s and our clients' involvement with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office and its ongoing criminal Grand Jury investigation, we are not in a position to comment at this time," he said in an email.
Range continues to deny the allegations that gave rise to the case.
In an email, Range spokesman Mark Windle said the company was "voluntarily releasing" terms of the settlement.
"We believe this additional transparency resolves any outstanding questions on this topic," he added. "As we have said for years, and as we believe the evidence in the case proved, our operations at the Yeager well site did not impact the plaintiffs' water supplies or cause any adverse health impacts."
He also said Range's insurance carrier covered the company's portion of the settlement.
During the hearing, Range's attorneys said the company had settled the case to avoid the expenses of continuing the matter.
"We were looking for peace," said Erin McDowell.
But she and co-counsel Kimberly Brown said that relief proved elusive. Brown cited efforts first by Haney's attorneys to have settlement documents unsealed so she could introduce them in a related case in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Brown also noted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had mounted its own bid to get documents of the settlement unsealed.
It's unclear whether Tuesday's events will affect that litigation. Frederick Frank, who represents the newspaper, said part of what his clients were asking the court to unseal was now posted publicly, and that he has to discuss the situation with his clients.
"We'll have to see what else may be under seal," he said.