Ruling due on unsealing gas well settlement

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A closely watched legal challenge to the sealing of a court-approved settlement between Marcellus Shale development companies and the Washington County family that claimed the industrial operations damaged their health moved a step closer to resolution Friday.

Washington County Court President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca presided over a one-hour 45-minute hearing in which Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners argued that their agreement settling a personal injury lawsuit brought by Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and their two children should be kept secret.

"What the case is about is the right of privacy, and when a case is settled out of court not to have it publicized just because newspapers are curious," said attorney Phillip Binotto Jr., of Eckert Seamans, who spoke on behalf of the drilling companies.

Mr. Binotto said the companies "have a right to negotiate confidentiality agreements and we have the right to enforce those agreements."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter are challenging an August 2011 decision by former Washington County Court Judge Paul Pozonsky to seal the settlement documents, which had to be reviewed and approved by the court because minor children were parties to the agreement.

"Merely saying a settlement is confidential does not satisfy the presumption that the court record should be open," said Frederick Frank, the attorney representing the Post-Gazette.

Mr. Frank noted courts have ruled that "confidentiality can never be a primary component of a settlement involving a minor." He also noted that neither the Hallowichs nor the state Department of Environmental Protection has contested or objected to the newspapers' request to open the settlement documents.

At one point in the hearing, Judge Seneca admonished the industry counsel for linking its confidentiality argument to the protection of the rights of the Hallowichs' children.

"What gives you the right or standing to assert the privacy rights of the minor children?" Judge Seneca asked Mr. Binotto.

Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, a New York-based environmental law organization, who sought to file a brief in support of opening the judicial record, said the settlement could contain important information about the impact of gas drilling operations on public health. The Hallowichs had claimed in their lawsuit that the family suffered from a variety of health problems caused by multiple gas wells and compressor stations and a wastewater holding pond near their small farm.

Judge Seneca said she is still awaiting delivery of a transcript from state Superior Court, which ruled in December that Judge Pozonsky erred in denying the newspapers' requests to intervene and argue that the case file be unsealed.

She did not indicate when she would issue a ruling. Mr. Frank said, "I believe the judge will act expeditiously."

mobilehome - neigh_washington

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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