The Hallowich children were just 7 and 10 years old when their family received a $750,000 settlement to relocate away from their home in Mount Pleasant, Penn., which was next door to a shale-gas drilling site. By the time they’re grown up, they may not remember much about what it was like to live there — the burning eyes, sore throats, headaches, and earaches they experienced thanks to contaminated air and water. And maybe it’s better if they don’t remember, since they’re prohibited from talking about the experience for the rest of their lives.
The terms of Stephanie and Chris Hallowich’s settlement with Range Resources included, like most such settlements do, a non-disclosure agreement preventing them from discussing their case or gas drilling and fracking in general. But the agreement’s extension to their children is unprecedented; one assistant law professor at the University of Pittsburgh called it “over-the-top.”
According to the transcript [of the settlement hearing], the Hallowichs’ attorney, Peter Villari, said that in 30 years of practicing law he never had seen a nondisclosure agreement that included minor children.
And, although he advised the Hallowichs to accept the settlement, he questioned if the children’s First Amendment rights could be restricted by such an agreement.
According to Villari, the settlement wouldn’t have gone forward unless the couple also signed a document stating their health was not affected by drilling operations. So all the record will show, as a spokesperson for Range Resources put it, is that “clearly the Hallowichs 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.” Man, if you could get $750,000 just for having an “unusual amount of activity” near your home — say, the construction of some microapartments — development-related NIMBYism would cease to exist.
For people whose property values, health, and quality of life have suffered thanks to fracking, settlements like these can be a bitter pill to swallow. In exchange for much-needed compensation for damages, they’re barred from speaking up about their experiences, which slows the spread of awareness about fracking’s potential risks and helps the cycle of exploitation continue. ClimateProgress explains:
The Hallowich family’s gag order is only the most extreme example of a tactic that critics say effectively silences anyone hurt by fracking. It’s a choice between receiving compensation for damage done to one’s health and property, or publicizing the abuses that caused the harm. Virtually no one can forgo compensation, so their stories go untold.
Bruce Baizel, Energy Program Director at Earthworks, an environmental group focusing on mineral and energy development, said in a phone interview that the companies’ motives are clear. “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.” There have been attempts to measure the number of settlements with non-disclosure agreements, Baizel said, but to no avail. “They don’t have to be registered, they don’t have to be filed. It’s kind of a black hole.” …
Sharon Wilson, an organizer with Earthworks, said … “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.” She makes it clear she doesn’t blame the families who take the settlements. “They do what they have to do to protect themselves and their children.”
The Range Resources spokesperson said the company doesn’t believe this settlement should apply to the children. But according to the hearing transcript, Range Resources’ attorney asserted not only that the order does indeed apply to the younger Hallowichs, but that the company “would certainly enforce it.”
If Range Resources ever gets its official position straight, the Hallowich kids could be released from the gag order. Until then, they better watch what they say on the playground.
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