Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
The curious story of Stephanie and Chris Hallowich of Washington County in Pennsylvania may have reached an end. A good start on this is the National Geographic article relating their experience with shale drilling. Chris, a young high school History teacher, and Stephanie, an accountant, bought ten acres about 30 miles South of Pittsburgh and built their dream home, completed in 2007.
As the article puts it, “But even as they were building, the bucolic view was being replaced by an industrial panorama. Four natural gas wells, a gas processing plant, a compressor station, buried pipelines, a three-acre plastic-lined holding pond, and a gravel road with heavy truck traffic surround them. Instead of the sounds of birds and the scent of new-mown grass, the Hallowiches listen to the wheeze of tractor-trailer brakes and breathed diesel fumes—and worse.”
The result was they had to have water delivered to their home for drinking, bathing and cooking, and were exposed to air contamination, too, as well as the sound of the compressor station and trucks. As readers of FrackCheckWV.net know, standards for proof of well contamination are set impossibly high, loss of water supply simultaneous to drilling is not considered proof, you must show the contamination is identical to something that was sent down the well.
There was a conflict between the PA-DEP assessment of their well water and the results of a private lab. They had to use a wind sock to tell which way the wind was blowing, to know when to keep their children indoors. Part of Hallowich’s problem was having so many installations around them, which are considered individually, but not the total effect, in present law. They had invested their future income on the place and no one would buy it and no bank would finance the buyer. The company said they offered what amounted to 40% of the value Hallowich’s thought it was worth, but Hallowich’s denied ever getting an offer. Mrs. Hallowich became a vocal critic of the industry.
Then the Hallowich’s decided to sue. In August, 2011 it was announced the family had settled the claim against the drilling company and the two companies that operated the compressor stations. No details were released, and the results were sealed by the court.
Now the story gets more peculiar. At this point the drilling company decided to increase the size of the impoundment from 5 million to 15 million gallons.
Next, two newspapers, the Observer-Reporter of Washington County, and the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, decided to ask for opening court records, based on the state Constitution relating to open court proceedings. The judge refused, saying the papers had waited too long, from August 23 to September 6, “And untimely filing of petitions are frowned upon.”
At this point an Observer-Reporter writer thought to examine the transfer tax record in the Court House. This showed a $545, 000 between the two parties.
November 15th, 2011, the Hallowich’s filed a second suit against the drilling company stating it had violated the confidential agreement by falsely stating it paid $500,000 for the property. The actual price was $100. The claim was that the drilling company intentionally and fraudulently filed a Reality Transfer Tax Statement of Value with the State Department of Revenue to publically embarrass them and inflate the family’s tax obligations on the sale of their home and “garner a public relations windfall,” because the company had paid more than the full market (appraised) value of the property.
By April the matter had grown so important as a news item that the casewas appealed to the PA Superior Court. Earthjustice, a public interest law firm specializing in cases protecting natural resources, safeguarding public health, and promoting clean energy, filed an amicus brief on behalf of doctors, scientists, researchers and advocates supporting the joint efforts of the Pennsylvania newspapers. “The sealed court records in this case are part of a widespread pattern of industry secrecy,” Mr. Gerhart said. “In the face of a nationwide gas drilling boom and the troubling reports of related health impacts, we cannot afford to let this pattern continue.”
The 39-page brief contained references to 27 other court cases in seven states involving confidential settlements or limited disclosure or nondisclosure of court proceedings alleging health or environmental problems caused by unconventional shale gas development involving hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Six of the cases are in Pennsylvania.
In June the judge left the bench under a cloud of suspicion. “Amid reports he is the subject of a state investigation, Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky said in a letter Friday he decided to retire after more than 15 years on the bench to focus on his family and pursue other interests.”
In December the state Supreme Court sent the case back to the county court. In January the case was again in Washington County court before a new judge who said, “The whole thing is a little unusual. There wasn‘t at least complete transparency that occurred here. And if you have a presumption of openness in the court and all the activities that happen in it, this might raise some eyebrows.”
In a March a decision was made by the new Judge that the record should be opened. The settlement paid out $750,000,including more than $150,000 in legal fees. The comment from the driller at this point was, “Range does not have concerns with the judge’s decision, which we greatly respect, to make the court file public. This information combined with the vast public data accessible through the DEP’s extensive investigations should provide the public with even greater clarity that shale gas is being developed safely and responsibly.” To which the reader will no doubt ask, “So why were they against disclosure in the first place.”
The new judge’s statement was, “Corporations, companies and partnership have no spiritual nature, feelings, intellect, beliefs, thoughts, emotions or sensations because they do not exist in the manner that humankind exists … They cannot be ‘let alone’ by government because businesses are but grapes, ripe upon the vine of the law, that the people of this Commonwealth raise, tend and prune at their pleasure and need. Therefore, this court must grant those motions and reverse [the previous decision], unless a higher authority forestalls the common law’s application.”
An article appeared on March 21 titled “Washington County couple collects $750K settlement in fracking case with no medical evidence to support health claims,” allowing the spokesman from the drilling company to say, “We’ve long maintained there was never any environmental or safety impact on the family. The public can now very clearly see this is an industry that is being faithfully and responsibly developed without adverse impacts on health, safety or the environment.”
Whoa! What’s the lesson here? Do you suppose these people admitted they were lying all along? Do you suppose two college educated people didn’t understand the implications of the statement admitting no medical evidence existed to show that drilling harmed them when collecting a settlement? Or do you suppose it was a logical extension of the often used confidential settlements, mentioned above, so frequently forced on litigants to get them to settle? Is this last interpretation out of line with the attempt to “stick it to the Holloways” by falsely reporting property value as mentioned in the second suit filed?
What is the old saying, “When you swim with sharks….”