A Pennsylvania judge, handing a victory to local media and health groups, ordered documents unsealed in a settlement between gas-drillers and homeowners who accused the companies of contaminating their water.
Common Pleas Court Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca said in a ruling today that the natural-gas drillers failed to overcome the presumption that the records should be open unless the companies, including Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources Corp., showed they’d suffer harm to trade secrets or reputation.
“The defendants’ assertions of a right of privacy under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are meritless,” O’Dell-Seneca wrote.
In disputes from Wyoming to Texas to Pennsylvania, gas drillers have often demanded homeowners keep quiet about their complaints in exchange for buying their properties, delivering fresh water or paying out a settlement. Without the information about those individual cases, health and environmental groups say they can’t assess the risks of fracking.
The disputed documents were not immediately unsealed and their contents are not public. Before the records were closed, the homeowners, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich, told National Geographic magazine that their water was polluted by the wells, pipelines, processing operations and truck traffic that came into the rural area where they had built their home. They also said they suffered burning eyes, sore throats and other symptoms when gas was released into the air.
“They made very serious allegations about the health impacts of drilling near their home,” Matthew Gerhart, an attorney for Earthjustice, which urged the court to unseal the documents, said in an interview. “We are interested to know whether there is anything in the record that sheds light on those allegations.”
He called the decision a victory for anyone who believes more information is needed on the health and environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. While it’s not clear what specific information the records’ contain, it will probably prove relevant in assessing the effects of the fracking boom across Pennsylvania and nationwide, he said.
Range, which fought to keep the record sealed, said it now welcomes the disclosure.
The file “should provide the public with even greater clarity that shale gas is being developed safely and responsibly,” Matt Pitzarella, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter, backed by health and environmental groups, sued to open the settlement records over the objections drillers including Range Resources, the company that pioneered fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania.
The Hallowich family also agreed to keep the records confidential. Unlike most settlements, the deal needed approval of a judge because their minor children were parties to the case. That put the settlement in court, where the newspapers and public interest groups could attack its confidentiality.
Fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to break apart rock and free trapped natural gas, has brought a boom in energy production to Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado, and lowered natural gas prices. That’s lured chemical and other manufacturers to invest in the U.S.
The process has also sparked complaints from some nearby landowners and farmers, who say leaks from holding ponds, spills, and underground ruptures have led to contamination of their water.
The Hallowich family, which lived in western Pennsylvania, sued Range and other gas drillers in 2010, claiming the drilling operators and gas-processing facilities failed to adhere to Pennsylvania environmental law for air, water and soil.
Hallowich and Range reached the settlement in 2011 after filing a notice that they intended to sue.
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