In PA: Judge Places Entire Family Under Gag Order No Talking About Fracking

Among the fourteen hundred or so families in the western Pennsylvania town of McMurray  a community in Peters Township, Washington County, there is now one family prohibited by gag order, a court ordered agreement,  from speaking about fracking.

Free speech advocates, as well as, environmental campaigners are outraged by the ruling from the court.

We’re outraged, too.

The activists say the secrecy has helped the industry resist more stringent environmental and health controls – by concealing evidence of water contamination and health problems associated with natural gas operations. In other words more obfuscation of corporate malfeasance.


 

Peter Villari, lawyer for the Hallowichs,  told the court during the hearing he had never seen a gag order imposed on children in his 30 years of practicing law. He stated his own research has turned up no case law to support placing gag orders on children.

Lead defendant, Range Resources, was one of the initial developers of the Marcellus Shale, an area widely believed to be one of the largest natural gas reserves in the United States.

The Hallowich family had earlier filed a lawsuit, (2010) in which they  accused oil and gas companies of annihilating their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania while endangering their children’s health. They alleged that fracking operations, including the use of undisclosed chemicals near their home, had adversely impacted their health and property.

“We do the right things for the right reasons because that is who we are.” ~ Ray Walker, Senior Vice President-CEO,
Range Resources Corporation

The all encompassing  non-disclosure agreement gag order was imposed as part of a $750,000 settlement between the Hallowich family and Range Resources Corp, a leading oil and gas driller.

Also named in the lawsuit along with Range Resources Corporation; Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream; MarkWest Energy Partners, LP; MarkWest Energy Group ,LLC; and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

A settlement was reached in 2011 and sealed when the children were seven and ten years-old. The terms of the non-disclosure agreement was discovered when the court transcripts for the hearing were released in response to an open records request by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette;  which first reported on the children’s lifetime gag order. The newspaper has been fighting for the release of all documents in the Hallowich settlement.

The rare prohibition against the Hallowichs and their children speaking about anything related to Marcellus Shale development was discussed at length in a new Washington County Common Pleas Court transcript of an August 2011 settlement hearing from which reporters for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were barred and during which case records were sealed.

As part of its efforts to unseal all of the Hallowich case records, the Post-Gazette recently requested a transcript of that closed-door hearing, and Washington County Court President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca granted that request. The hearing transcript was filed with the county’s prothonotary Wednesday.

In addition to the concerns about the confidentiality agreement, the transcript shows the case records should have included a copy of the confidential settlement agreement, which was not among more than 900 pages of case documents that were ordered unsealed in March by Judge O’Dell Seneca.

According to the 16-page transcript, then-Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky approved sealing the court records with the settlement agreement “attached thereto” in the private hearing held to settle the claims of the Hallowichs against Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy.

Their farm was neighboring  major industrial operations: four gas wells, gas compressor stations, and a waste water pond, which the Hallowich family said contaminated their water supply and caused burning eyes, sore throats and headaches.

Typically gag orders are placed on adults in matters of litigation. Gag orders, non-disclosure agreements, – on adults – are typical in settlements reached between oil and gas operators and people who live in the heart of shale gas business in Pennsylvania. The company lawyer’s insistence on extending the lifetime gag order to the Hallowichs’ children gave even the judge pause, according to the transcripts of the court hearing.

This non-disclosure agreement was part of the settlement. The parents 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,”  Stephanie Hallowich,  mother of the children, told the court.

The attorney representing Range Resources told the court  “I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it.” Range Resources, are seemingly distancing themselves from the lawyer, his law firm and his remarks made during the hearing,

Range Resources Corporation now says, through its current company spokesman, Matt Pitzarelli,  who wrote in an email to StateImpact,  “Those comments are not accurate from our former outside counsel and are not reflective of our interpretation of the settlement.  The seven and ten year olds are free to discuss whatever they wish now and when they are of age.”

The Hallowichs have since moved. Their attorney, Villari, says their health has improved significantly.

Well certainly that sounds more reasonable.

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