$3-Million Settlement Revealed In High-Profile Fracking Case
ALLEGHENY FRONT/STATEIMPACT PENNSYLVANIA - In an unusual event, a legal settlement in a high profile fracking case has been made public because of a computer error. The document, dated August 31, 2018, shows the gas drilling company Range Resources and other defendants agreed to pay $3 million to three Washington County, Pa., families who alleged that nearby fracking contaminated their properties and made them sick.
The court document was issued under seal, but was discovered last week in a public database by a reporter with the public radio program The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania. After issuing an injunction, Judge Katherine B. Emery on Tuesday ruled it could be published. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is suing to have the entire agreement made public.
The families' ordeal was detailed by journalist Eliza Griswold in the book "Amity and Prosperity," which was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.
Nearly a decade ago, Stacey Haney, Beth Voyles, and others said they began smelling foul odors in the air and water in their homes, according to court records. Haney's son was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. He and other family members visited doctors to complain of nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and skin rashes.
They suspected a nearby Range Resources gas drilling well pad site. It included a drill cuttings pit, and impoundment for fracking wastewater.
In 2012, Haney, Voyles and Loren Kiskadden sued Range Resources, claiming spills, leaks, and other activities at the site contaminated their air, ground and surface water, resulting in health impacts for them, and the deaths of a beloved 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 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection imposed a $4.15 million penalty on the company for violations at six waste water impoundments in Washington County, including the one near the Haney and Voyles homes.
Griswold's book details Haney's eventual decision to move her family out of their house over fears of living near a contaminated site. Haney still owns that house. Voyles stayed in her home despite her struggles there.
Terms of the settlement
The newly public 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. In a separate release, Range said its settlement is for a total of $1.88 million to eight individuals.
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 Stacey Haney and Beth Voyles, unless they wished to sell or transfer the property to the Voyles 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.
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.
After Tuesday's court decision, Range Resources provided a redacted version of its settlement. In a statement, the company said, "As we believe the evidence in this case proved, our operations at the Yeager well site did not impact the plaintiffs water supplies or cause any adverse health impacts."
Despite this settlement and others, there may be more fallout from claims of how Pennsylvania's fracking boom has affected residents. The state's attorney general has empaneled a grand jury to investigate possible "environmental crimes" in Washington County.
The AG's office has asked both sides in the Haney v. Range case to retain their records, explaining that "one of the potential criminal investigations involves your respective clients." Another woman who'd also sued the gas driller has testified before the grand jury.
After today's court decision, an attorney for Haney and the other families issued a statement that said because of this "ongoing criminal Grand Jury investigation, we are not in a position to comment at this time."
Griswold's "Amity and Prosperity" was published in June 2018. While it doesn't disclose the amount Haney and Voyles each received in the settlement, it says "the amount they received left both of them feeling angry and defeated" but also offered them "a chance to move on."
Reid Frazier is a reporter for StateImpact Pennsylvania and The Allegheny Front, a public radio program based in Pittsburgh that covers the environment.