Sealed settlement on Washington County drilling lawsuit to be reconsidered

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A state appellate court ordered a Washington County court Friday to consider hearing arguments to unseal records in a case in which a Washington County family claimed it was harmed by nearby gas drilling.

Stephanie and Chris Hallowich sued Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, claiming that gas drilling operations harmed their health and property value.

The parties formalized a settlement in August 2011 during a private meeting in Judge Paul Pozonsky's chambers, after which the case file was sealed.

A reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette objected to the closed-door proceeding, and the paper filed a petition a week later to intervene in the case and to unseal the record. The Washington Observer-Reporter filed a similar request, and the judge denied those requests in February.

Superior Court Judges Judith Olson, Paula Ott and James Fitzgerald wrote in the decision issued Friday that Judge Pozonsky erred in denying the papers' requests to intervene and argue that case file should be unsealed.

Judge Pozonsky unexpectedly retired this summer, about a month after the president judge stripped him of his ability to handle criminal cases.

Frederick N. Frank, the attorney representing the Post-Gazette, said he plans to file a motion early next week requesting a hearing be held quickly on requests to unseal the records.

"We're very pleased that the Superior Court agreed," he said. "We continue to believe that there is a strong constitutional and common law right of access to the record."

Representatives for the drilling companies could not be reached for comment Friday night.

marcellusshale - neigh_washington

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.


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