The Commonwealth Court judge ruled Tuesday in favor of The (Scranton) Times-Tribune, rejecting an appeal by the state Department of Environmental Protection of an order by the state's Office of Open Records to turn over the documents.
The department had challenged, among other things, whether the request was sufficiently specific, whether the office should have considered the burden on the department of locating and producing the records, and whether it had already made a good-faith search for them.
"There is simply nothing in the (Right To Know Law) that authorizes an agency to refuse to search for and produce documents based on the contention it would be too burdensome to do so," Judge Anne Covey wrote.
She added that "an agency's failure to maintain the files in a way necessary to meet its obligations under the (law) should not be held against the requestor," since that would allow an agency "to avoid its obligations under the (law) simply by failing to orderly maintain its records."
A reporter for the newspaper in September had sought access to any letters sent to public and private water supply owners on whether nearby natural gas drilling operations had polluted or diminished the flow of water to their wells, as well as any enforcement orders stemming from such a determination.
Newspaper attorney J. Timothy Hinton Jr. called the ruling "a good decision for public access."
A department spokesman told the paper Tuesday that officials had just received and were reviewing the opinion.