Court Records in Natural Gas Case Reveal No Health Impacts
While some media outlets fairly reported a story about the release of court records in a fabled and now settled case against some natural gas companies operating in Southwest Pennsylvania, others painted a picture of hidden contamination from hydraulic fracturing. The only thing being hidden, however, is what was left out of the story by some of these outlets: the fact the plaintiffs agreed their health had not been impacted as they had alleged.
We cannot help but notice the varied ways media outlets have reported the story about the release of court records in the case where the Hallowich family (the plaintiffs) sued Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams/Laurel Mountain Midstream, three natural gas companies, over alleged contamination of their air and water. The case was settled in 2011 and the court records were sealed at the joint request of the plaintiffs and defendants.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others, challenged the sealing of the records. Upon their release, the newspaper produced a story that left out the central fact: the plaintiffs recanted their claims of having their lived ruined and health compromised. Contrast this with the story from its competitor, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which was headlined “Washington County Couple Collects $750K Settlement in Fracking Case with No Medical Evidence to Support Health Claims,” which speaks for itself. It was likewise for the Associated Press, which noted: ”The documents released Wednesday also show the Hallowichs agreed there was no medical evidence that drilling harmed their health or their children’s health.”
StateImpact Pennsylvania, however, filed a recent post headlined Drilling Companies Agree to Settle Fracking Contamination Case for $750,000 that, without explicitly saying so, implied some secret settlement had hidden away supposed contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing. They, too, never mentioned the reversal of the bigger story. Nonetheless, they did highlight the key points in their released version of the records themselves, and provided any interested reader with all the facts – if they were willing to dig for them.
Bloomberg News reported on the release by issuing a very detailed (and biased) story that failed to mention two DEP studies finding no evidence to support the plaintiff claims. Bloomberg, like the Post-Gazette and StateImpact, failed to mention the affidavit where the plaintiffs reversed their position, offering in its place the following:
In disputes from Wyoming to Texas to Pennsylvania, gas drillers have often demanded homeowners keep quiet about their complaints in exchange for buying their properties, delivering fresh water or paying out a settlement. Without the information about those individual cases, health and environmental groups say they can’t assess the risks of fracking.
Bloomberg also included a “Serious Allegations” subtitle and quote from EarthJustice, as if it was the seriousness of the charge and not the truth that mattered. The truth is a much different story, as it turns out and it’s not really all that new. There is no evidence in the record or elsewhere suggesting a link between any well or operation of Range, MarkWest or Williams and any purported contamination.
DEP Letter Showed No Contamination from Outset
The facts are easily obtainable from documents we’ve previously published. Indeed, we published the facts back in September 2010, some two and a half years ago, in the form of a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Hallowich case. The most basic fact may be taken from this two sentences from the beginning of the letter (emphasis added):
Therein, you allege that Range Resources has contaminated the supply and are requesting that DEP issue an order to the company for the replacement/restoration of the supply. After a review of the information, including primarily water analyses, we cannot affirm your conclusions.
There are another two sentences in the concluding paragraphs that confirm DEP’s position:
In summary, we question your conclusions about the contamination problems to the Hallowich water supply. The only parameter that is clearly above the MCL is manganese, and we cannot clearly link it to the drilling of the Range Resources gas well. Therefore, DEP cannot issue a water supply replacement/restoration order to Range Resources.
These two statements are just the beginning. The plaintiffs accused Range and other companies of contaminating their well, but the evidence they supplied didn’t ultimately change the facts, and the settlement they received was anything but a validation of their claims; it actually served to invalidate them.
The StateImpact Pennsylvania post includes access to the basic court documents, some 971 pages, and helpfully highlights certain key points, although it focused a great deal of attention on the plaintiffs’ claims. The very brief article also includes this paragraph:
StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained the newly available documents and we’ve posted all 971 pages below. The Hallowich family sued the gas drillers after they say nearby drilling activity, including compressor stations, made their children sick. The mother, Stephanie Hallowich became an outspoken critic of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. But the final settlement imposed a strict gag order on the Hallowich family, as well as the gas drilling companies. The Hallowich family has since moved from their home.
Plaintiffs Admit No Health Impacts
The reader is subtlety led by this phraseology to the conclusion the accusation must be accurate because the gas companies settled and then secured a “gag order” to keep the whole thing secret. This narrative is belied by what is later highlighted but not discussed in the post; the words of the plaintiffs themselves from an affidavit they signed in settling the case. Here is the relevant part (emphasis added):
Plaintiffs, Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, hereby submit the following affidavit and attest that:
1. With respect to Plaintiff minors’ alleged claims mvolve nuisance and personal injury claims, there is presently no medical evidence that these symptoms are definitively related to any exposure to the activities of Defendants set forth in Plaintiffs’ [Complaint].
2. The minors have alleged claims for nuisance and personal injury in connection with Defendants’ business operations. There is presently no medical evidence supporting that these claims related to any exposure to Defendants’ business operations as set forth in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.See Exhibit A. And presently, the minors are healthy and have no symptoms that may allegedly be related to Defendants’ business operations.
3. Based upon the facts and circumstances of the case and on behalf of our minor children, we believe and certify that the proposed settlement. as set forth in the Petition, is reasonable and fair.
If you thought a plaintiffs’ admission their complaints were false might be relevant to this story, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, some of our friends in the media operate from a different perspective, where it is the significance of the initial charge that matters, not its validity or expiration date. The StateImpact website, to be fair, did highlight those portions of the court records and provided readers access to all the facts, but gave them no attention in the post itself. The reader only learns of the plaintiffs’ rejection of their own claims after reading through the PDF notes or more than 200 pages of the court documents. Journalism, by some media standards, apparently means putting your reader to the test, rather than simply telling the complete story to the reader.
Other Facts Ignored by Some Media Outlets
These were hardly the only relevant facts ignored by some of the errant media outlets. For example, the “gag order” mentioned far and wide about the case? It was at the mutual request of the parties, including Range Resources, other defendants and the plaintiffs. Given the fact the plaintiffs admitted their complaint was baseless, it’s not hard to imagine why they might have appreciated keeping that affidavit sealed.
The plaintiffs also repeatedly asserted their water supply had been contaminated with elements known as acrylonitrile and styrene, but the DEP analysis evaluated those allegations and found them to be baseless. Here are the relevant excerpts from their letter (emphasis added):
The RT report mentions an impact from acrylonitrile. Again, only the “Hunt” sample reports a number, and RT’ s sampling did not detect this compound. The report identifies acrylonitrile as a possible constituent of the liner and suggests the latter as the cause because there are no other sources in the area. Acrylonitrile is used in the manufacture of plastics, glues, pesticides, ABS pipe (common drain line pipe used in homes; the “A” in ABS stands for acrylonitrile ), synthetic rubber, acrylics, carpets, dinnerware, food containers, toys, luggage, automotive parts, appliance, telephones, among others. It can also be washed from the air by rain and then enter the groundwater system. There is a plastic rock which has been placed over the water well and could be leaching contaminants into the ground during rainfall events, which interestingly enough is when Mrs. Hallowich reports that the acrylonitrile values seem to increase based upon on-going sampling that apparently has been occurring. Unfortunately, a sample could not be taken of the pit contents by RT, which could have helped to determine whether or not acrylonitrile might be leaching from the liner. It should also be noted that there is no established drinking water MCL for this compound, either by DEP or EPA.
Concerning styrene, only one of the two analyses reports this contaminant in the Hallowich supply and this at an undetermined concentration. RT’s [the plaintiffs’ water testing laboratory] own sampling did not measure any styrene at the reported detection level. How styrene might be related to gas well drilling is not clear. However, the water lines in the Hallowich household, as well as from the water well to the house, are PVC which contains styrene.
Then, there is the interesting matter of what came first. The aforementioned DEP letter states the following (emphasis added):
As a bit of background, the Range gas well in question was drilled in July of 2007. The Hallowich water well was installed in October, 2007. In addition, Range constructed a lined, centralized fresh water impoundment near the Hallowich home in the summer of 2007.
A general problem in reaching conclusions about the source of any Hallowich water supply contamination is the lack of a pre-drill analysis of the water source prior to the drilling of the Range gas well. We acknowledge that the water supply was not installed until after the gas well was drilled, but we are unable to document the quality of the aquifer prior to the drilling of the gas well. Moreover, the results taken at a neighboring property (163 Avella Road), which is also close to the gas well, only shows a lead problem; the other four parameters are either non-detect or within drinking water standards. Mrs. Hallowich alleges that the drilling of the gas well polluted the aquifer. As the following will demonstrate, we are lacking any direct evidence to prove this assertion.
The plaintiffs drilled their water well after gas companies had already established their operations on adjoining properties. According to the court records, the Hallowichs purchased the property in June 2005 and had framed in a home by May 2007, but allege they were unaware that it had been subdivided from another sold to the gas companies for purposes of natural gas development. Apparently, we are supposed to believe the plaintiffs purchased a property, didn’t bother reading the deed, and were completely unaware there was natural gas development occurring around them as they built their home – even though they were a leaseholder!
Washington County Courthouse
As the Observer-Reporter notes: ”The amount, and the fact that the Hallowiches retained oil and gas rights to the property, was part of the public record of the transfer tax on the property.” So, we have plaintiffs who claim surprise and property value devastation over having natural gas wells and associated infrastructure nearby, but who simultaneously insisted on retaining their mineral rights and royalties. Pardon me, but it sounds like they were keenly aware of their gas lease. They are also, obviously, well aware of the resource extraction activity all around them, as Mrs. Hallowich works for a health and safety services provider to the mining industry.
Which Is It?
Hallowiches’ concern for the health and safety of her children is, no doubt, sincere. But she has spun two different stories in that regard: the one she has told numerous media outlets and special interest groups (from National Geographic to the BBC to PennEnvironment, the folks who tried to peddle a photo of a flooded Pakistani drilling rig as evidence of problems in Pennsylvania), and the one she told the court. First, as a plaintiff, she claimed their “property has been the subject of chronic, ongoing, and unceasing environmental contamination (both water and air)” (see p. 67 of court records). Then, on July 25, 2011, she swears in the above affidavit “there is presently no medical evidence supporting that these claims.” And yet, she subsequently allowed her name to be added to this “List of the Harmed” indicating her family suffered “burning eyes, sore throats and other symptoms.”
Which is it? When were the plaintiffs telling the truth? Given the fact the affidavit was effectively supplied under oath, one presumes that’s the real story, but some media outlets didn’t choose to contrast the before and after. Perhaps the plaintiffs will ask for a correction of the List of the Harmed. Perhaps these outlets will expand their stories to provide the necessary background and perspective. One can always hope. Certainly they should, as the DEP did studies of air quality in the immediate vicinity of the facilities adjacent to the plaintiffs’ property over five weeks in 2010 and found this (p. 21):
Even though constituents of natural gas and other associated target compounds were detected, the screening results found during the five-week study, did not indicate a potential for major air-related health issues associated with the Marcellus Shale natural gas activities.
That makes two DEP studies, one of water and one of air, that both found exactly what the plaintiffs admitted in 2012 – there was no evidence to support their originalclaims.
So, settling up, if you will: We have a story of a baseless claim that generated untold publicity for the plaintiffs and the multiplicity of special interests using them as token victims. The gas companies, meanwhile, got 10 acres of property and a home Trulia.com says is still worth $303,094, although the Hallowich’s listed it for $500,000 at one point. Here is how the story is reported by the Star-Telegram:
According to a 2010 National Geographic report, Pitzarella said Range made a verbal offer to buy the Hallowich property for around $200,000, based on a real estate agent’s assessment of fair market value. The Hallowiches, who have since moved from their house, had put it on the market for close to $500,000.
Of the $750,000 paid, nearly $600,000 went to the family, including trust accounts of $10,000 for each of the couple’s two small children.
The settlement says the children’s “alleged claims involve nuisance and personal injury. There is presently no medical evidence that support that these claims are related to any exposure to the activities of defendants as set forth in plaintiff’s complaint.”
The family’s lawyer received 20 percent of the settlement, or $150,000, plus $5,179.63 in expenses.
The Hallowiches, in other words, got something on the order of $600,000 after paying their attorneys, and it wasn’t to compensate them for medical damages they experienced, but, rather, unrestricted funds, as they acknowledged there were no medical bills to pay or reason to have incurred them. Rather, it reflected little more than what they thought their property was worth. Sounds like it was, in fact, a good deal for all parties, and what made it all possible for the plaintiffs and their friends was the affidavit some outlets won’t talk about – the hidden story that should be told, but is ironically sealed beneath the weight of inconvenience.