Last week, settlement documents from 2011 were unveiled, showing how a leading gas and oil company had imposed a gag order on a family and their children who were harmed by industrial practices.
The gag order was imposed under a $750,000 settlement between the Hallowich family and Range Resources Corp, a leader in oil and gas drilling. The order provoked outrage on Monday among environmental campaigners and free speech advocates.
The settlement barred the Hallowich's son and daughter, who were 10 and 7 years old at the time, from ever discussing hydraulic fracturing or the Marcellus Shale, a leading producer in America's shale gas boom. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," is the process of injecting high pressure fluid into the ground to fracture rocks and release natural gas. Fracking fluid can contain up to 600 chemicals including lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. During the fracking process, methane gas and toxic chemicals can leach out of the system and contaminate nearby groundwater. Drinking water wells near fracking sites have methane concentrations that are 1700% greater than those in normal drinking water wells.
The Hallowich family had previously alleged that oil and gas companies were responsible for the destruction of their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and endangering the health of their children. Their property was adjacent to a major industrial site that contained four gas wells, gas compressor stations, and a waste water pond, which the Hallowich family says contaminated their water supply, leading to burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.
Gag orders placed on adults are typical in settlements reached between oil and gas companies and residents living in Pennsylvania's shale gas boom region, but according to court documents, even the judge hesitated when the company's lawyer insisted the lifetime gag order be extended to the children.
The couple told the court they agreed because they wanted to move to a new home away from the gas fields, and to raise their children in a safer environment. "We need to get the children out of there for their health and safety," the children's mother, Stephanie Hallowich, told the court.
She was still troubled by the gag order, however. "My concern is that they're minors. I'm not quite sure I fully understand. We know we're signing for silence forever but how is this taking away our children's rights being minors now? I mean my daughter is turning seven today, my son is 10."
Campaigners say that the industry imposed policy of secrecy has harmed the environment and public health by allowing companies to hide evidence of water contamination and other issues.
Jame Swetz, the attorney representing Range Resources, confirmed that the company pursued a gag order on the children. "I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it," he told the court.
However, after two years, the gag order has come to light, and presumably in an effort to avoid criticism, Range Resources told reporters that it doesn't agree with Swetz's comments. "We don't believe the settlement applies to children," a Range Resources spokesman told the Gazette. He went on to claim that there was no evidence that the Hallowich family was affected by exposure to their operations.