Children Given Gag Order In Pennsylvania Fracking Suit Settlement

Two Pennsylvania children have been banned from talking about shale gas drilling, or fracking, for what appears to be the rest of their lives by the terms of a legal settlement reached between their parents, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich, and three oil and gas companies who lead drilling operations at the state’s Marcellus Shale.

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Though the Hallowiches consented to the terms of the $750,000 settlement in 2011, the details, including the familywide gag order, were made public just last week after a request by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette to unseal telling court documents.

Nondisclosure agreements, or gag orders, are routine in many types of settlements—including those between citizens and oil and gas companies involved in controversial fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which releases natural gas for energy. Often, the orders ensure that the public doesn’t know how much money was paid in a settlement.

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“In this case, I think it’s about more than money,” Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, told Yahoo! Shine. Earthjustice, a public-interest environmental law organization, filed a brief in support of the Post Gazette’s effort to unseal the Hallowich-case court documents. It has also compiled records showing that nondisclosure agreements are the norm in settlements involving fracking. “It’s part of an industry campaign of secrecy, in which companies do everything they can to prevent the public from knowing the connection between what [fracking] does and how it’s harmful to both people’s health and the environment.”

Still, a gag order that applies to minors is relatively unheard of, say law experts.

“It’s unusual,” Peter Villari, attorney for the Hallowiches, told Yahoo! Shine. Jesse Choper, professor of public law at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “It’s unusual that you’re binding little kids to a nondisclosure agreement,” he said.

Jessie Allen, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Post Gazette, “My reaction is it’s kind of over the top.”

The Hallowiches, former anti-fracking activists, had been living on a 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant when they brought a lawsuit against Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy. They claimed that the adjacent Marcellus Shale operations damaged the health of their family, including their children, then 7 and 10, by causing burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches. 

They also claimed operations contaminated their drinking water and rendered their property worthless. They had purchased it in 2005, unknowingly inheriting a lease with Range Resources. Soon after the Hallowiches built their house in 2007, gas wells, access roads, a gas-processing facility and compressor stations were constructed on bordering properties, bringing with them noise, lights and emissions, according to reports.

The hearing transcript about the children’s gag order, ordered public by a judge along with the other court records last week, shows the Hallowiches agreed to the restrictive terms of the settlement—which also included the signing of a statement saying that the family’s health was not negatively affected by the drilling—in order to be able to move on from the situation.

“We have agreed to this because we needed to get the children out of there for their health and safety,” Stephanie said, according to the transcript. “My concern is they’re minors, I’m not quite sure I fully understand. I know we’re signing for silence forever, but how is this taking away our children’s rights being minors now?”

The family’s attorney, Peter Villari, responded. “I have counseled both Chris and Stephanie, as drafted, the order could be read to forever bar their two children from ever commenting on anything to do with fracking or Marcellus Shale. I have counseled them that they are minors,” he said. “I, frankly…don’t know if that’s possible that you can give up the First Amendment rights of a child. I don’t know.”

Villari’s firm “never encouraged the family to agree to it,” he told Yahoo! Shine. “I pushed them quite hard on the issue, said it was unusual, and that we did not believe it was constitutional.” But he said he understood the family’s decision, as the settlement was a “take it or leave it” offer, with the gag order attached. “They had to make a difficult decision at that point in time,” he explained, adding that the Hallowiches were under financial strain and needed the settlement money in order to move. “They made what they felt was the best decision for their family.”

Also in the hearing, Chris Hallowich told the judge, “…If they, in turn, say one of the illegal words when they’re outside of our guardianship, we’re going to have difficulty controlling that. We can inform them. We can tell them they cannot say this, they cannot say that, but if on the playground…”

“So noted,” the court reporter replied.

James Swetz, attorney for Range Resources, could not be reached for comment.

Range Resources spokesperson Matt Pitzarella told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that he wasn’t certain the gag order actually applied to the children—which Villari said was a “surprise” to him, because court documents clearly indicate that it did. Pitzarella said, "All of the reports done at the time indicated no exposure [from the gas development] and they never produced evidence of any health impacts. We did say that clearly the Hallowiches were not in an ideal situation in terms of their lifestyle. They had an unusual amount of activity around them. We didn't want them in that situation."