Environmental groups, physicians and scientists filed a brief Monday in state Superior Court supporting legal efforts by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Observer-Reporter of Washington to open a court-sealed settlement agreement between a Washington County family and Marcellus Shale gas development companies.
The two newspapers also filed briefs Monday in their Superior Court appeal of a Washington County Common Pleas Court ruling that denied the newspapers the right to intervene to unseal the settlement.
Matthew Gerhart, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the brief, said publicizing the August 2011 settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Hallowich family against some shale gas companies, including Range Resources and MarkWest Energy Group, would help doctors and scientists better understand health impacts caused by shale gas development.
"The sealed court records in this case are part of a widespread pattern of industry secrecy," Mr. Gerhart said. "In the face of a nationwide gas drilling boom and the troubling reports of related health impacts, we cannot afford to let this pattern continue."
The 39-page brief contains references to 27 other court cases in seven states involving confidential settlements or limited disclosure or nondisclosure of court proceedings alleging health or environmental problems caused by unconventional shale gas development involving hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Six of the cases are in Pennsylvania.
The fracking process injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into an underground shale seam to crack the rock and release the gas it contains. Accidental spills of fracking fluid or flow-back wastewater can pollute surface or ground water, and vapors released during and after the well-drilling process can pollute the air.
Before the settlement, Stephanie and Chris Hallowich had been vocal critics of shale gas operations in Mount Pleasant, including gas wells, a wastewater holding pond and compressor stations adjacent to the farm they bought in 2005. Mrs. Hallowich said contaminants caused them to have burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches.
Attorney Erin McDowell, representing MarkWest Energy Partners LP and MarkWest Energy Group LLC, declined comment on the filing. Range Resources attorney James Swetz did not respond to a request for comment, and Kathy Condo, attorney for the Williams Field Services Co. LLC and Laurel Mountain Midstream LLC, was unavailable. Peter Villari, the attorney who represented the Hallowichs, also declined comment.