When drilling company Range Resources offered the Hallowich family a $750,000 settlement to relocate from their fracking-polluted home in Washington County, Pennsylvania, it came with a common restriction. Chris and Stephanie Hallowich would be forbidden from ever speaking about fracking or the Marcellus Shale. But one element of the gag order was all new. The Hallowichs’ two young children, ages 7 and 10, would be subject to the same restrictions, banned from speaking about their family’s experience for the rest of their lives.
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.”
The Hallowich case shows how drilling companies can use victims’ silence to rewrite their story. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that before their settlement, the Hallowichs complained that drilling caused “burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and contaminated their water supply.” But after the family was gagged, gas exploration company Range Resources’ spokesman Matt Pitzarella insisted “they never produced evidence of any health impacts,” and that the family wanted to move because “they had an unusual amount of activity around them.” Public records will show, once again, that fracking did not cause health problems.
It’s not the only time gas exploration companies have gone to great lengths to keep the health problems caused by fracking under wraps. A 2012 Pennsylvania law requires companies to tell doctors the chemical contents of fracking fluids, so long as doctors don’t reveal that information, even to patients they are treating for fracking-related illness.
Sharon Wilson, an organizer with Earthworks, said that was the point. “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.”
Wilson witnessed the very beginning of fracking in her own backyard. Some of the first experiments in combining horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing took place around her 42 acres of land in Wise County, Texas, on the Barnett Shale, and everyone was cashing in. But she saw the negatives first-hand. “I thought they were digging a stock pond, but it was actually a waste pit,” she said on the phone. “I caught them illegally dumping in streams and creeks.”
That led Wilson to start the work she continues to this day with Earthworks — helping landowners prove damage to their health and property from fracking, for eventual settlement. But as soon as the settlement comes, she said, “they get gagged. And then they can never talk about it again.” Wilson knew the Hallowichs, but now rarely talks to them, afraid she could cause them to run afoul of the gag order.
But even she was shocked that the Hallowich children would be gagged too. “How can you even do that?” she asked. “Is there a list of words the kids aren’t allowed to say?”
Peter Vallari, the Hallowichs’ lawyer, said that in decades of legal work, he had never seen such a thing, and could find no example of a similar gag order. “It’s not typical, and it was imposed on my clients, put in the way of an ultimatum,” he said by phone.
Wary of the bad press for putting a lifetime gag order on two minors, Pizzarella told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “we don’t believe the [Hallowich] settlement applies to children.” This, despite ready availability of the settlement transcript, in which the company’s lawyer states “I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it.”
Vallari, the Hallowichs’ attorney, doesn’t buy Pizzarella’s retraction via press. “Their lawyers insisted on that language, and they said they wanted it enforced,” he said when reached by phone. “Until they write me a letter or sign a stipulation saying [it doesn’t apply to the children], I don’t believe it.” Pizzarella did not respond to requests for interview.
Wilson, the organizer, said that even beyond making political action more difficult, gag orders are causing people direct harm. “When you get a settlement and get gagged, you can’t warn your neighbors,” she said. “Then your neighbors drink the very same water, and have health issues that are probably permanent.”