As part of a 2011 settlement (pdf) between a Pennsylvania family and three oil and gas companies involved in drilling in the Marcellus Shale, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich have been prohibited from talking about the case or about gas drilling or fracking — and so have their two children, who were aged 7 and 10 at the time of the lawsuit.
Yes, a lifelong ban on talking about fracking has been placed on two minor children.
“I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it,” James Swetz, the attorney representing one of the companies, Range Resources, is quoted as saying at an August 2011 settlement hearing that reporters were not allowed to attend and during which court records were sealed.
The court transcripts have now been released, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette filed an Open Records request. The 16-page transcript shows that the prohibition against the children speaking was “discussed at length.”
Legal experts emphasize that the gag order on children is “rare.” “It’s right to react to this as strange and the lawyers involved reflect that when they say they’ve never seen that. My reaction is it’s kind of over the top,” says Jessie Allen, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Hallowichs had accused Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy of not only destroying their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, but also of seriously endangering their children’s health. Adjacent to their property were four gas wells, gas compressor stations and a waste water pond; these, according to the family, contaminated their water supply and left them with burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.
The gag order on the whole family was a condition of the settlement. The Hallowichs said they agreed to it because they wanted to move to a new home for the sake of their children’s health and safety.
As their attorney, Peter Villari, said according to the court transcript, “in 30 years of practicing law, he had never known a nondisclosure agreement to include minor children.” As another University of Pittsburgh law school professor, Harry Flechtner, comments, as children, the Hallowich’s son and daughter “can’t be bound by such an agreement, a contract, but the wild card is the court approval of the agreement.”
Villari has also questioned whether the children’s First Amendment rights are being affected, if not violated, by such a settlement. The judge in the case, Paul Pozonsky (who has since retired) said that this was ”a law school question, I guess.”
The “fracking gag” placed on the children is anything but an academic question. Their lives, and those of the entire Hallowich family, have been irredeemably affected by the oil and gas companies’ industrial activities. The companies might dispute the influence of fracking and other operations on their health, but the family having to move from their property was certainly a disruption in their lives.
A spokeman for Range Resources, Matt Pitzarella, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Swetz’s comments are “not something we agree with” and that “we don’t believe the [Hallowich] settlement applies to children.” As Villari says, “I’d appreciate it if they’d put that in writing.”
It goes without saying that the three oil and gas companies must clarify their position about the gag order. Most of all, the two Hallowish children must be released from it. By including the gag order for the family, the companies have given them a whole lot more to talk about.
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