Pa. appeals court rules newspapers can pursue sealed records in fracking settlement

Lilly Chapa | Secret Courts | News | December 11, 2012

Two newspapers can now argue for the unsealing of settlement documents in a secretive fracking lawsuit, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled Friday.

The decision overturned a January ruling by the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County that denied reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter access to the settlement agreement between a local family and four natural gas companies. The newspapers will now go back to the lower court to plead their case, and the date of the hearing will be set Monday, according to Observer-Reporter editor Liz Rogers.

“The public has a right to know how much money was paid out to these people,” Rogers said. “We’re opposed to these documents being closed, which is why we went to court.”

The reporters attempted to attend a settlement conference between the Hallowich family of Washington County, four natural gas companies and the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection. The Hallowich family sued the companies for health problems and property damage caused by fracking, a controversial natural gas drilling operation that critics say involves chemicals that are harmful to drinking water.

The reporters were denied access to the July 2011 hearing because the family’s children were involved in the proceedings. The companies and the family reached a settlement agreement and sealed the record of the proceedings the same day.

One week later, the Post-Gazette filed a motion to intervene and unseal the records, and the Observer-Reporter joined the motion shortly after. The court denied their motion, ruling that the reporters had not petitioned in a timely manner, since they requested the records after the case had been settled.

The newspapers argued that their request was still valid even after the records were sealed and the case was closed, and the appeals court agreed.

“We hold the court should have liberally construed Rule 2327 and accepted as timely filed both Appellant’s petitions to intervene and to unseal the record,” the appeals court ruled.

Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a number of doctors, scientists and advocates fighting for access to information that could shed light on the health impacts of gas development, according to the firm's website.

“Understanding and preventing any health risks from gas development depends on public access to information on the industry,” the website said. “The gas industry should spend less time trying to conceal information and more time disclosing information necessary to understand the true risks of fracking and gas development.”