Pennsylvania conducting criminal investigation into shale gas

State conducting criminal investigation of shale gas production by David Templeton and Don Hopey, January 28, 2019, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

[Excellent visuals at link above]

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is pursuing criminal investigations of “environmental crimes” committed by the oil and gas industry in Washington County and possibly throughout the state.

In an Aug. 16, 2018, letter to attorneys in a civil case before the Washington County Court of Common Pleas, Mr. Shapiro and his office said they already had accepted a referral and “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County.”

By that time Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone already had discussed with and referred claims of environmental problems in shale gas development to the attorney general’s office.

Three Washington County residents told the Post-Gazette that they have spoken with AG investigators and were told they could be called to testify, with a Washington County woman saying that she already presented testimony before an investigative state grand jury in Pittsburgh.

Joe Grace, spokesman for Mr. Shapiro and the state Office of Attorney General, said, “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”

The AG’s letter was introduced as an exhibit during an August court hearing on the civil case brought by Stacey Haney in 2012 against Range Resources Appalachia LLC, and specially referenced as the “Stacey Haney/Range Resources Investigation.”

“It has come to our attention that one of the potential criminal investigations involves your respective clients,” said the two-paragraph letter signed by Courtney Butterfield, deputy attorney general and obtained recently by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from someone not involved in the case.

The letter noted that a significant record of documents, statements, depositions, scientific tests and physical evidence had been compiled for the civil case. It requested that attorneys preserve that record, under penalty of law if they failed to do so.

John Smith, who represented Ms. Haney, her family members and neighbors in the case, confirmed that he did receive the AG’s letter, but said he has no knowledge of the AG’s investigation or any grand jury proceedings.

“I can’t speak to any of that and cannot confirm or deny anything,” Mr. Smith said.

In addition to Mr. Smith, the AG’s letter was addressed to two attorneys who represented Range in the Haney case, Kimberly Brown and Erin McDowell.

Ms. Brown, an attorney with Jones Day, declined to comment when asked in a phone call if she’s had any additional contact with the AG’s office since receiving the Aug. 16 letter. “I’m not going to comment one way or another on anything you said,” she said. Ms. McDowell did not return a phone message or respond to an email requesting comment.

Two Range spokesmen did not return phone calls made over several days seeking comment, or respond to emailed questions asking if Range or its employees have been contacted by AG investigators or testified before a grand jury.

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokeswoman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in response to emailed questions that the shale industry trade organization has not been contacted by state investigators and had no further comment.

Range Resources fracked gas wells next to June Chappel’s house, seen here on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Hopewell, Washington County. She testified before a state grand jury that fracking operations exposed her and her family to loud noise, bright lights, pollution, and high stress, among other impacts.

On Sept. 8, a resident sent Mr. Vittone, the Washington County District Attorney, a one-page letter asking him to investigate the “many individuals and companies involved in his situation,” referring to that person’s damaged property on which fracking occurred and a compressor station was built.

“The stress that oil and gas, regulatory agency and legal system have caused me and my family is unconscionable,” the letter stated. “I am requesting an investigation by your office and by the office of the Attorney General and the Auditor General.”

On Sept. 13, Mr. Vittone responded with a letter noting limited jurisdiction in the area of environmental crimes while noting that the attorney general’s office had an “entire unit dedicated to investigating these matters and that office also has broader jurisdiction both criminal and civil to enforce the environmental protection statutes.”

“For that reason, I am forwarding a copy of your letter to Acting Chief Deputy Attorney General Rebecca Franz for action,” he stated. “Chief Franz and I met several months ago and discussed exactly these types of matters and how they should be addressed. This procedure is in keeping with our arrangement.”

The investigative grand jury has begun taking testimony, according to one person who said she has testified. Three others have met with investigators and say they are willing to testify at the proceedings in Pittsburgh.

June Chappel looks through photos of the impoundment that used to be behind her house on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Hopewell, Washington County.
(Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

June Chappel, 59, who lives on what had been a picturesque ridge top in Hopewell Township, Washington County, said she testified before the grand jury for about an hour in early January on what she described in a recent interview as “three years of hell” with drilling and fracking.

She said the attorney general’s office contacted her in late December requesting a meeting that took place shortly thereafter. One week later, on a Friday, Ms. Butterfield and another agent returned to Ms. Chappel’s home to ask if she could testify the following Monday morning. Ms. Butterfield and the same agent returned to her home, she said, to transport her to Pittsburgh to testify.

In 2009, she said, Range Resources drilled a shale gas well next to her 1.3-acre property, leaving a large well pad with a number of condensation tanks next to her home. The company also felled trees and built a football-field-sized impoundment immediately behind her property to store fracking wastewater. The operations generated constant truck traffic, loud noise, bright lights and emissions that she said gave her headaches.

Flaring of methane gas at the well, she said, was so loud that it shook the walls of her home. Her efforts to retrieve beagles from an outdoor pen during two days when flaring took place, she said, left her with diagnosed ear damage and tinnitus she still experiences.

But the grand jury, she said, was “most interested in the burning of the [impoundment] lining during flaring.” The flaring of wells, no longer legal, was used to burn gases and oils to stabilize pressures in new wells. The flaring ignited the lining of the impoundment and it continued burning, off and on, for a full day, she said. A fire truck was eventually called to extinguish the fire.

“That lining burned and could have blown us to smithereens,” Ms. Chappel said.

She succeeded in convincing the company to remove the pond after fracking was completed but said she still smells odors. She said deer won’t walk across the reclaimed field where the impoundment was and instead travel only along its perimeter.

Three people living in Washington County said they’ve met or have had contact with investigators from the attorney general’s office concerning problems with shale gas operations on or near their properties. None has been called to testify, to date. Each asked that his or her name not be published.

One resident is battling a gas company over property damage and various legal issues related to fracking operations. Another resident has had a longstanding dispute with a gas company over suspected health problems related to nearby shale-gas development operations, quality of life impacts and damage to the house and farm.

Yet another resident is fighting a gas company over allegations its well caused health-damaging chemical exposures to that person’s family and neighbors.

During an AG’s office meeting on May 4, 2017, 17 people from as many as seven counties aired complaints about the shale gas industry affecting residents’ health while also contaminating their land, water and air; damaging properties and killing or sickening livestock.

Late in May 2017, Mr. Shapiro and AG investigators met in Pittsburgh with representatives from environmental advocacy groups for an educational outreach about environmental issues, and how his office was interested in learning about environmental concerns in Western Pennsylvania, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, community outreach coordinator for the Environment Integrity Project.

In the Washington County lawsuit, Ms. Haney, her family and neighbors claimed that they experienced serious health problems, including a heightened risk of cancer, due to exposure to toxic chemical spills, leaks from a wastewater impoundment and air pollutants emitted from Range Resources’ shale gas operation known as the “Yeager site” in Amwell Township.

The lawsuit also alleged that Range and two water-testing labs conspired to falsely report that Ms. Haney’s well water was good when it was contaminated, thus contributing to the family’s exposure to hazardous chemicals. The suit also contended that the state Department of Environmental Protection faked and reported incomplete air test results that showed lower air pollution levels.

The lawsuit was settled last fall and its terms sealed. The Haney family’s story was chronicled in “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” which was among the New York Times critics’ top books of 2018.

David Templeton: email hidden; JavaScript is required or 412-263-1578. Twitter: @templetoons. Don Hopey: email hidden; JavaScript is required, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey

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