Shh! Settlement bans two kids from talking about fracking – for life
The unusual gag order case affects two Pennsylvania children, ages 7 and 10.
Wed, Aug 07, 2013 at 11:39 AM
Two Pennsylvania children have been permanently banned from talking about fracking following a legal settlement with the companies exploring for natural gas around their family farm. The 2011 settlement, signed when the kids were just 7 and 10 years old, could theoretically follow them for the rest of their lives, according to reports from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
How did two pre-teens get wrapped up in this gag order? It all stems from a 2011 settlement signed by their parents after fracking companies set up shop around their 10-acre farm in Washington County. The farm was effectively surrounded by four wells, multiple compressor stations and a wastewater pond. The kids' parents, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich, filed a lawsuit saying their air and water supplies had been contaminated. They complained that the family was experiencing headaches, sore throats and burning eyes and that their kids' health was at risk. "We need to get the children out of there for their health and safety," the mother said in court documents.
The gas companies settled, offering the Hallowich family $750,000. Like most such agreements, the settlement came with a non-disclosure agreement that prevented Chris and Stephanie Hallowich from discussing the case with anyone in the future. Unlike most such agreements, the non-disclosure agreement also covered the two children.
Legal experts consulted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette say they known of no other cases in which children have been received similar "gag orders." The paper has been seeking all documents related to the sealed case for several months and finally received the transcript from the closed-door hearing where the settlement was offered last week. (Although they received the transcript, the paper did not receive a copy of the settlement itself.)
A spokesperson for Range Resources, one of the fracking companies, told the paper that they do not believe the non-disclosure agreement applies to the children. The Hallowich's attorney, however, says the development companies insisted on the language that included the two minors in the agreement.
This noteworthy discussion between the parents and their attorney Peter Villari appears in the transcript:
Mr. Villari: You both understand and accept that as written the settlement agreement may apply to your children's First Amendment rights as well?
Mrs. Hallowish: Yes.
Mr. Villari: And you accept that because you, as adults and as legal guardians and parents of these children, are accepting these terms and conditions because you believe it is in the best interests of not only them but your family?
Mr. Hallowich: Yes, and health reasons. We needed to do this in order to get them out of this situation.
James Swetz, a lawyer for one of the natural gas companies, said this later in the transcript: "I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it."
The Hallowich family did not speak directly with the paper. Their attorney said their health problems have faded since they moved away from their farm. The gas companies, most of which declined to speak with the paper, deny that fracking caused any health-related concerns for the family.
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