Judge bars release of document in gas drilling suit

A Range Resources well site in Washington County in 2018. (Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

A Range Resources well site in Washington County in 2018. (Reid R. Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

This article originally appeared on StateImpact.

A Washington County judge has issued a court order barring The Allegheny Front, StateImpact Pennsylvania and 90.5 WESA from publishing the content of a publicly available legal document obtained by a reporter for the news organizations, pending a hearing next week.

The legal document is an Aug. 30, 2018 Memorandum Order entered in the case of Stacey Haney and several of her Washington County neighbors.

The group sued gas-drilling company Range Resources in 2012 for allegedly contaminating their air, groundwater, and soil from activities related to fracking. The suit alleged Range and two contracted laboratories committed fraud and conspiracy by manipulating test results to obscure their findings from the plaintiffs.

The case was settled in 2018. The settlement reached at that time is filed under seal.

Washington County Prothonotary Joy Ranko said Thursday the memorandum order should not have been public. “This document was never scanned into the public database,” Ranko said.

But the document was publicly available over the course of at least two days, May 28 and May 29, on the Washington County Prothonotary’s Public Case File Database. Reid Frazier, a reporter for The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania, printed it off the prothonotary printer at 25 cents a page.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been involved in ongoing litigation to get the court to unseal the settlement. Range Resources, however, is arguing that it should remain sealed. In early May, Judge Emery turned down a request by the gas driller to subpoena reporters and an editor of the Post-Gazette to “test the veracity” of the newspaper’s request.

When Range Resources attorneys learned that Frazier had a copy of the order, they sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Range Resources both informed Judge Katherine Emery of the release of the document. Emery then issued the injunction and set the hearing date. The injunction bars the news organizations from “directly or indirectly publishing, circulating, disseminating, disclosing, describing, duplicating, or otherwise sharing in any way contents of the Sealed Documents.”

The Haney case and lawsuit are detailed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Amity and Prosperity,” by the journalist Eliza Griswold.

A court date has been set for Tuesday, June 4 at 10 a.m. for a hearing on the order at the Washington County Courthouse.

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