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 whatsoever.”
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 order.
“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 ClimateProgress.
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.”