The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter of Washington, PA have sued to open sealed court documents in a case involving a Pennsylvania couple who previously were outspoken critics of the natural gas drilling industry and who made claims that drilling had contaminated their water supply. Last week, anti-drillers joined their cause and filed a brief in state Superior Court.
When Stephanie and Chris Hallowich bought their Washington County farm in 2005, they inherited a lease with a natural gas drilling company. One byproduct was the couple became vocal critics of the Marcellus Shale industry, giving interviews, posing for photographs and alleging environmental damage from multiple natural-gas operations nearby, including contamination of their well water.
The Hallowiches sued, but they’ve been silent since the case was settled in August. Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky sealed the court record, and their lips, which means the public might never know which if any of their claims about air and water damage were admitted by the defendants — Range Resources, Mark West Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners.
That’s not right, and it defies the legal presumption that state court records must be open to the public except in very limited circumstances.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter of Washington so far have been blocked in their attempt to challenge the court’s ruling. Last week, environmental groups, physicians and scientists filed a brief in state Superior Court supporting the newspapers’ efforts to open the settlement papers to public scrutiny.
The parties want the record opened because they believe it may contain pertinent information regarding public health and safety. The Hallowiches have not objected to the attempts of the newspapers to get involved, yet the drilling companies claim, in part, that keeping the settlement out of public view somehow protects the interest of the couple’s children.*
There’s no doubt the Post-Gazette and O-R, as well as the “environmental groups” (i.e. anti-drillers) who filed the brief are fishing for stories they can sensationalize and use against the drilling industry. The laws that seal court documents are typically invoked to protect the identity and reputation of children, or to protect an important government interest, or to protect a trade secret.
MDN believes in this case, while their motive is suspect, the newspapers are correct. It’s only when the drilling industry is fully transparent that the public can have confidence in what we already know: that drilling, while not 100 percent safe, is almost always safe. And when it’s not, it gets corrected. Everyone wins when the public has all the details and can make their own judgment.
*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 9, 2012) – People’s interest: Open the court record on the Marcellus Shale case