The 7- and 10-year-old children of a Pennsylvania couple that reached a settlement following a lawsuit involving health issues brought on by fracking have been barred from discussing details of the case for the rest of their lives.
Though a gag order is not unusual in itself when large
corporations reach a settlement with plaintiffs in court, the
August 2011 case of a family that went to court with Range
Resources Corporation, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream,
and Markwest Energy due to the environmental and health impact
caused by gas fracking operations has raised eyebrows for its
inclusion of the couple’s young children.
The Pennsylvania family reached a $750,000 settlement with the
gas companies, and have used the award to relocate. In exchange,
however, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich agreed that no member of
their family could comment on the case “in any fashion
Details of the case only emerged recently when the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette managed to get court transcripts released. The
paper’s reporters were originally barred from attending the
settlement hearing, and had to wait until a three-judge panel of
the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a lower court had
erred in blocking the unsealing of the records.
Court records, which should have included details of the
settlement but did not, paint a confusing picture for Chris and
Stephanie Hallowich as they tackled the significance of their gag
“We know we’re signing for silence forever, but how is this
taking away our children’s rights being minors?” Stephanie
Hallowich asked the judge.
“I mean, my daughter is turning 7 today, my son is 10.”
According to the transcripts, Judge Polonsky, who oversaw the
case, was unable to clarify. The family’s attorney, Peter
Villari, questioned whether the order would be enforceable.
“I, frankly, your Honor, as an attorney, to be honest with
you, I don’t know if that’s possible that you can give up the
First Amendment rights of a child,” stated Villari.
Along with the gas companies, the Hallowich family also sued the
state’s Department of Environmental Protection. In its ruling to
unseal court records, the superior court also noted that the
August 2011 hearing during which the record was sealed was held
three days prior to schedule, without an official notification of
the change of date, reports the New York Times.
According to Bruce Baizel, Energy Program Director at Earthworks,
which focuses on mineral and energy development, the motives
behind restrictive gag orders post-settlements is to conceal any
evidence of adverse environmental impact from hydraulic
fracturing, or fracking.
“The refrain in the industry is, this is a safe process.
There’s no record of contamination. That whole claim would be
undermined if these things were public,” Baizel told
Moreover, attempts to measure the number of settlements with
non-disclosure agreements have failed.
“They don’t have to be registered, they don’t have to be
filed. It’s kind of a black hole,” says Baizel.
Prior to the settlement the Hallowichs said that nearby gas
drilling had caused “burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and
earaches, and contaminated their water supply.”
Once the settlement was reached and the gag order enacted,
however, a spokesman for Range Resources stated that the family
had “never produced evidence of any health impacts,” and that the
Hallowichs primary motive for moving was instead due to “an
unusual amount of activity around them.”
“These gag orders are the reason [drillers] can give testimony
to Congress and say there are no documented cases of
contamination. And then elected officials can repeat that,”
said Sharon Wilson, an organizer with Earthworks who also spoke
Pennsylvania is ground zero in the current US fracking boom, with
several companies taking advantage of the great reserves
contained within the Marcellus Shale region of the state. With
that boom have come questions over the hydraulic fluids being
used by gas companies to extract energy.
According to a 2010 congressional investigation, Halliburton
along with other fracking companies had used 32 million gallons
of diesel products, including toxic chemicals such as benzene,
toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Low levels of exposure to such
chemicals can trigger headaches and dizziness, while higher
exposure can cause cancer.
An agency official told congressional investigators in 2011 that
the EPA assumed that the use of diesel in fracking had stopped
seven years ago. The total amount of diesel in that instance was
calculated based on voluntary disclosures by companies like
As for the gag order on the Hallowich family, Range Resources
recently appeared to back away from indications that it applied
to the two children, though it was unclear at this time whether
the other companies involved in the settlement agreed on that
“Those comments are not accurate from our former outside
counsel and are not reflective of our interpretation of the
settlement,” wrote spokesman Matt Pitzarelli in an email to
StateImpact when questioned about the case.
“The seven and ten year olds are free to discuss whatever they
wish now and when they are of age,” added Pitzarelli.
According to the attorney representing the Hallowichs, since
moving their health has improved significantly.
Republished from: RT