Newspapers seek release of shale settlement

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter have returned to court to force the release of the confidential settlement ending a claim by a Mount Pleasant family that Marcellus Shale gas development damaged their farm and their health.

In a motion filed Friday in Washington County Common Pleas Court, the newspapers asked President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca to order Stephanie and Chris Hallowich to file the missing document with the Washington County prothonotary.

That document was not part of more than 900 pages of court records the judge ordered unsealed Wednesday, even though the agreement supposedly was "attached" to other filings in the case and is identified as "Exhibit B" in the released documents.

"While it is unbeknownst to Intervenors why an exhibit averred to be attached to a court pleading filed with this Court is missing," the newspapers' said in the 12-page motion, "it is clear that the Agreement, Exhibit B, is a judicial record subject to public access."

Attorney Frederick Frank, who represents the Post-Gazette, said the motion asks the Hallowiches to produce the settlement agreement because their attorney, Peter Villari, prepared the settlement petition for their children, Nathan and Alyson, to which it was attached. Mr. Villari is on vacation and was unavailable for comment.

The court records were sealed in August 2011 by Washington County Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky, who has since resigned.

The settlement between the Hallowiches and Range Resources Inc., Mark West Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream paid the family $750,000, according to a summary document that was part of the unsealed court record. That summary said about $600,000 was paid to settle the claims of Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, including $10,000 set aside in a trust fund for each of the two children. Attorneys fees totaled $150,000, plus $5,179.63 for expenses.

The settlement also established a mechanism to assess any future claims of personal injury to the Hallowich children that could be related to their exposure to the air and water pollution the family claimed occurred when four Marcellus Shale gas wells, compressor stations and a 3-acre wastewater impoundment were installed adjacent to their 10-acre farm.

In the years leading up to the settlement, the Hallowiches filed numerous complaints with the state Department of Environmental Protection that their well water supply had been contaminated and that their children had been exposed through the water and air to volatile organic compounds from the drilling operations.

Ms. Hallowich said water testing found ethylbenzene, toluene, styrene and tetrachloroethylene -- all cancer-causing organic compounds. She said the air and water contaminants caused family members to experience burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and they had to pay about $500 a month to have water delivered to the farm.

On July 25, 2011, the Hallowiches signed an affidavit agreeing that with respect to their children's claims for nuisance and personal injury, "there is presently no medical evidence" to support that the claims were related to shale gas development activities.

Three days later, the Hallowiches filed a court petition for approval of the settlement.

marcellusshale - neigh_washington

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


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