Prove your humanity

Range Resources and other defendants agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit last year with three Washington County families who alleged the natural gas drilling company contaminated their properties and made them sick, according to a court document obtained by The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania.

LISTEN to Reid Frazier discuss the case with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

In a separate release, Range revealed that the company’s insurance carrier paid $1.88 million to the plaintiffs to settle the case. “We have voluntarily released the settlement agreement that resolved prior litigation with eight landowners in Washington County. We believe this additional transparency resolves any outstanding questions on this topic,” Range spokesman Mark Windle said in an emailed statement.

The settlement, agreed to in January 2018, remains sealed, though much of its contents are now public. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is suing to have the agreement made public.

Terms of the settlement were spelled out in a court order dated Aug. 31, 2018 and signed by Washington County Court of Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery. The order was issued under seal but 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.

Washington County Prothonotary Joy Ranko said on May 30 that the order had not been uploaded into a public-facing database where the county stores its court records. She later told the Washington Observer-Reporter that the document was public because of a computer error.

On May 30, after learning that The Allegheny Front and StateImpact had obtained the record, Emery issued an injunction against the news organizations, barring them from reporting on its contents, and setting a hearing date for Tuesday.

At the hearing Tuesday in Washington County common pleas court, Range told Emery it would publicly release settlement terms that apply to Range, and did not ask Emery to continue her order for the injunction. They said the company was seeking “peace” in the matter.

Emery vacated the order.

The Aug. 31 document does not say how much each of the eight individual plaintiffs were to receive, or how much Range and 10 other co-defendants in the case were to pay out.

The settlement includes:

  • a blanket release of claims against Range and the co-defendants;
  • a clause preventing the plaintiffs from making disparaging comments about the defendants; and
  • language giving Range Resources the right of first refusal to buy the properties of Haney and her neighbor Beth Voyles, another plaintiff, unless Haney wishes to sell the property to Ashley Voyles, or the Voyleses wish to sell or transfer their property to their children.

The settlement marked a turning point in a long-standing legal dispute that pitted Range, which pioneered hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania, against Haney, Voyles, and another neighbor, Loren Kiskadden. In November, a few months after the settlement, Kiskadden died.

In 2009, Range built the Yeager site, which included a well pad, drill cuttings pit, and impoundment for fracking wastewater near the plaintiffs’ Amwell Township homes.

The plaintiffs began detecting foul odors in the air and the water in their homes, according to court records. Then they developed health symptoms. Haney’s son was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. Other symptoms reported by the plaintiffs to medical professionals included nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and skin rashes.

In 2012, Haney, Voyles and Kiskadden sued Range, claiming spills, leaks, and other activities at the site contaminated their air, ground and surface water, resulting in health impacts and the deaths of a dog and a goat.

The suit also alleged Range Resources and two contracted laboratories committed fraud and conspiracy by manipulating test results to obscure their findings from the plaintiffs.

In 2014, the state Department of Environmental Protection imposed a $4.15 million penalty on the company for violations at six wastewater impoundments in Washington County, including one at the Yeager site.

The case was detailed by journalist Eliza Griswold in the book “Amity and Prosperity,” which was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. The book details Haney’s eventual decision to move her family out of the house over fears of living near a contaminated site. Haney still owns that house. Voyles stayed in her home.

Range denied wrongdoing and fought the lawsuit in court for six years. The two sides eventually entered mediation and agreed to a “global, comprehensive settlement” on Jan. 19, 2018, according to the Aug. 31 order. The settlement included a clause that both sides would “draft, finalize and execute” a final settlement agreement. But that process stalled and, seven months later, the two sides were back in front of Emery.

In her Aug. 31 order, Emery ruled that the term sheet both sides agreed to in January constituted an “enforceable agreement.” She ordered Range to pay the settlement total and the plaintiffs to drop all legal claims against the defendants.

It also noted that both sides were to retain their records, to comply with a request made by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office in an Aug. 16, 2018 letter. It stated the Attorney General’s office had “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County” and that “one of the potential criminal investigations involves your respective clients.”

Last week, Emery heard arguments in the Post-Gazette case to have the settlement unsealed. She was expected to make a ruling on whether the newspaper’s motion to unseal can go forward.

Griswold’s “Amity and Prosperity” was published in June 2018. While it doesn’t disclose the amount Haney and Voyles received in the settlement, it reports “the amount they received left both of them feeling angry and defeated” but also offered them “a chance to move on.”

Range spokesman Mark Windle said in an email that “Range’s insurance carrier, not Range, paid the company’s settlement amount,” and that the plaintiffs’ lawyers received 33 percent of that amount. That amount is typical in civil litigation. Windle said in an emailed statement the company’s activities did not pollute the site:

“As we have said for years, and as we believe the evidence in the case proved, our operations at the Yeager well site did not impact the plaintiffs water supplies or cause any adverse health impacts.”

John Smith, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an emailed statement:

“While we are aware of Judge Emery’s decision today to unseal the order of August 30, 2018, which outlines previously undisclosed settlement terms, due to our Firm’s and our clients involvement with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office and it’s ongoing criminal Grand Jury investigation, we are not in a position to comment at this time.”

This story has been updated. 

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This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.