In another bizarre twist in a case that has attracted international attention, a Range Resources attorney now says that the lifetime gag order preventing the Hallowiches from saying anything ever about Marcellus Shale gas drilling or companies involved in its development, doesn't apply to their two small children.
The case, which has become a public relations problem for the Marcellus Shale gas development companies involved, was initiated by Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, who claimed that multiple shale gas wells, compressor stations and a water impoundment surrounding their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Washington County, had sickened their family and damaged the value of their property. It was settled when Range, MarkWest Energy and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream agreed to pay the family $750,000 in August 2011, in an agreement that was sealed by the court and included a nondisclosure stipulation and a gag order.
Although the case records were unsealed by Washington County Common Pleas Court in March, the settlement agreement was missing from those records.
A transcript of the settlement hearing, from which Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters were barred by the court almost two years ago, was released last week at the paper's request and showed that the attorney representing Range said the gag order applied to the children and "we would certainly enforce it."
But Range's general counsel David Poole disavowed that statement in an Aug. 2 letter sent to the Hallowiches' attorney, Peter Villari, after the Post-Gazette stories on the hearing transcript appeared. In his letter, Mr. Poole said the "non-disparagement language" in the settlement applies to the Hallowich parents, but "Range has never, at any time, had the intention of seeking to hold a minor child legally accountable for a breach of that provision of the settlement agreement."
Mr. Poole, in his letter, also states that while Range has acknowledged that all the shale gas development around the Hallowiches' property "created a situation that was not ideal for the family or the companies," no tests showed the presence of pollutants in the air or water that could have affected the family's health. He also criticized Stephanie Hallowich for making what he characterized as "knowingly false" statements about the family's health problems, and Mr. Villari for waiting until the settlement hearing to raise questions about the gag order's application to the children.
Mr. Villari called claims that the shale gas companies didn't want the gag order applied to the Hallowich children "ridiculous."
He said he sent a response to Mr. Poole this week refuting each point in the Range letter, and called on him to make it public. He said he couldn't release his letter because making it public could be interpreted by the shale gas companies as a violation of the confidentiality agreement that binds the lawyers as well as the Hallowiches.
"This letter from Mr. Poole was nothing more than an attempt to backtrack and do damage control for a situation involving the gag order that Range Resources and the other companies created," Mr. Villari said. "During the settlement agreement negotiations the gag order was discussed and argued, and in the end they insisted on a blanket gag order or there would be no settlement."
Frederick Frank, the attorney representing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in its effort to have the confidential settlement agreement made public, said Tuesday that Mr. Poole's letter makes repeated references to information contained in that document.
"In order to defend themselves they've opened up their kimono," Mr. Frank said. "My position is they've totally waived the confidentiality of the agreement by releasing the letter [to a cable network], and we will seek the appropriate remedy from the court."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. First Published August 7, 2013 4:00 AM