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Range Resources resumes legal offensive against Washington County communities

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 9:46 p.m.

Gas drilling company Range Resources is on a legal offensive in Washington County weeks since calling a truce with frequent foes in places such as Cecil.

After telling Cecil in December that it wanted a relationship without lawyers, Range in January sent the township a notice of intent to sue over an undisclosed issue.

It filed a right-to-know request in Cecil, then appealed a partial denial to the state's Office of Open Records, Cecil officials said. Range also is in a legal tangle in neighboring Robinson over permit requests, which supervisors denied Monday.

Local government experts said it could be unwise for Range to use lawyers so soon after publicly pledging to try to avoid that.

“It's like putting out a fire with gasoline,” said Bracken Burns, a former Washington County commissioner. “You do not want that public image ... of being a combatant, a litigant, the archenemy. ... It doesn't matter who wins the lawsuit. At the end of the day, you've created an enemy.”

“Despite our best efforts, we have been forced into the legal process with a handful of townships, as have other businesses and individuals,” Range's Cecil-based spokesman Matt Pitzarella said in an email. “It's always our last option, and it's not a situation that we take lightly. We're able to work incredibly well with neighboring communities to the benefit of their residents.”

Pitzarella did not explain why the company notified Cecil it intends to sue. He declined requests for a phone interview. Several other gas companies would not address what it's like to work with the area's townships.

The about-face undermines chances for a better working relationship, said supervisors from Cecil and Robinson, a township Range sued twice over drilling permits in the past month.

“I do think that many of these municipal officials would be discouraged by that type of a response and could see it as Range moving backward,” said Diana Stares, a former state environmental lawyer and director of the Center for Energy Policy and Management at Washington & Jefferson College.

“It's possible that ... right now there comes an opportunity or need (for Range officials) to take a legal action in order to preserve their rights,” Stares said. “You always have to be mindful of that. But that is difficult for lay people to understand.”

Texas-based Range has had a troubled relationship with several townships in northern Washington County for years. On Monday, Robinson supervisors voted 3-0 to deny Range site permits for two planned wells.

In late January, Range sued in state appeals court, claiming Robinson officials disregarded their own laws to illegally drag out permit hearings for the sites since November.

The company long has criticized the solicitor for the two townships, John M. Smith, who recused himself from the Robinson cases, in part because his firm filed drilling-related lawsuits against Range and the state.

“If you want to start a new relationship, an improved relationship, the way to do it is not to sue,” said Andrew Schrader, a Cecil supervisor who attended the Robinson meeting. “How can you believe anything they have to say? ... We heard the words, we heard all the rhetoric. The actions were they went and sued us.”

Cecil and Robinson supervisors say they are trying to keep a delicate balance between citizens who want drilling and those who don't. A lawsuit could add to the divisiveness and entrench people's positions, Burns said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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