By Don Hopey
Oct. 3, 2019 – The state Department of Environmental Protection has hired outside legal counsel to deal with the state attorney general’s criminal investigations of “environmental crimes” involving the shale gas industry in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The DEP confirmed Wednesday that it has retained the law firm of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti to represent it in the probe.
The department also said that three law firms have been hired to represent DEP employees.
The criminal investigation was initiated by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro at some point prior to August 2018. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in January this year that the attorney general’s office had accepted referrals from the Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, assumed jurisdiction over “several criminal investigations” and that a state grand jury has been hearing testimony.
Elizabeth Rementer, a DEP spokeswoman, said in an email response to questions that the firms were hired “earlier this year when we became aware of the [attorney general’s] investigation.”
She said Pietragallo was hired to represent the department “both because DEP attorneys are environmental specialists, not grand jury practitioners, and in an effort to avoid any potential conflict of interest.” In a followup email, she said the firm was hired because of its expertise in criminal, as opposed to civil, litigation.
Ms. Rementer also said hiring outside counsel permits DEP staff attorneys to focus on “environmental work,” while the additional legal hires allow the department “to be responsive to the OAG [Office of Attorney General] investigation without pulling resources from the core work of the agency.”
She declined to answer a question about how many DEP employees have asked for legal representation, except to say that the department had hired lawyers for “all who have requested it.”
Attorney General spokeswoman Karissa Hand said the office has no comment. And it has not confirmed the existence of an investigation.
But a deputy attorney general in August 2018 sent a letter to attorneys in a civil case before the Washington County Court of Common Pleas stating it had “assumed jurisdiction over several criminal investigations involving environmental crimes in Washington County,” and one of those investigations “involves your respective clients.”
In that case, Stacey Haney and her neighbors alleged their health was damaged by toxic spills, leaks and air pollutants from the Yeager shale gas well drilled by Range Resources Appalachia LLC in Amwell. The suit also contended that the DEP faked and reported incomplete air test results that showed lower air pollution levels around the well site and nearby homes.
Range Resources and 10 other companies involved in developing the Yeager well site settled the suit in August 2018 by paying Ms. Haney and her neighbors $3 million.
The AG’s office asked the attorneys representing both sides in the case to preserve the case documents, depositions, scientific tests and physical evidence under penalty of law if they failed to do so.
And by February of this year, two Washington County residents, June Chappel of Hopewell Township, and Stephanie Hallowich, a one-time vocal critic of the shale gas drilling around her then home in Mount Pleasant Township, had testified at the grand jury in Pittsburgh. At least six other Washington County residents have said they were contacted by the attorney general’s office but haven’t yet testified.
The Pietragallo law firm is headquartered in Pittsburgh, has an office in Philadelphia, and employs 48 attorneys. Among the 27 practice areas listed on its website is “Government enforcement, compliance and white-collar litigation.”
According to the website, examples of the firm’s representation include “State and Federal public officials, municipalities, and businesses in public corruption investigations,” and “all legal aspects concerning a company involved in a chemical spill into public waterways, including state and federal environmental agency review, civil suits and grand jury investigations in multiple jurisdictions.”
The law firms hired to represent DEP employees are Dilworth Paxson, with offices in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, as well as Delaware, New Jersey and New York; Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, with offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, New York and California; and Ballard Spahr, headquartered in Philadelphia and with offices in a dozen states and the District of Columbia.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. Twitter: @donhopey. David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578. Twitter: @templetoons.