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.
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.
“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.