Pennsylvania

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Lifelong Gag Order Imposed on Two Kids in Fracking Case

Stephanie Hallowich with her two children. A court order forbids the children from speaking about fracking or Marcellus Shale for the rest of their lives.

Mark Schmerling / Courtesy of Protecting Our Waters

Stephanie Hallowich with her two children. A court order forbids the children from speaking about fracking or Marcellus Shale for the rest of their lives.

Two young children are forbidden from speaking about Marcellus Shale or fracking for the rest of their lives. The court action stems from a settlement in a high-profile Marcellus Shale lawsuit in western Pennsylvania.

The two children were 7 and 10 years old at the time the Hallowich family settled a nuisance case against driller Range Resources in August 2011. The parents, Chris and Stephanie, had been outspoken critics of fracking, saying the family became sick from the gas drilling activity surrounding their Washington County home.

According to court testimony released Wednesday, the parents were desperate to move and reluctantly agreed to a gag order that not only prevents them from speaking of Marcellus Shale and fracking, but also extends to their children.

Stephanie Hallowich told Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Pozonsky that she agreed to the gag order in order to get enough funds to move out of the house. But she said she didn’t fully understand the lifelong gag order on her children.

“We know we’re signing for silence forever, but how is this taking away our children’s rights being minors?” she asked the judge. “I mean, my daughter is turning 7 today, my son is 10.”

Judge Polonsky didn’t have an answer for her. And the family’s attorney, Peter Villari, questioned whether the order would be enforceable.

“I, frankly, your Honor, as an attorney, to be honest with you, I don’t know if that’s possible that you can give up the First Amendment rights of a child.”

Villari told StateImpact that it’s the first time he’s seen this in his 35 years of practicing law.

“That someone would insist on confidentiality of a minor child,” he said, “or that it would be discussed within the context of a proposed settlement was unusual. I have not encountered it before and I have yet to encounter it again.”

Villari says his own research has turned up no case law related to gag orders placed on children.

At the hearing, Villari questioned his own clients vigorously in order to establish they understood the bizarre nature of the confidentiality agreement.

Range Resources attorney James Swetz told the judge that when it came to the settlement agreement, the family was defined as the “whole family,” referring to the questions by the parents, the judge, and the parents’ lawyer as “ancillary.”

“That’s what we’ve agreed to,” Swetz told the court. “Putting aside all these other issues and sort of ancillary topics, that’s what the settlement says, and that’s what we’ve agreed to at this point.”

Range Resources seems to now be distancing itself from its lawyer’s remarks, insisting the gag order applies only to the parents.

“Those comments are not accurate from our former outside counsel and are not reflective of our interpretation of the settlement,” wrote spokesman Matt Pittzarella in an email to StateImpact. The seven and ten year olds are free to discuss whatever they wish now and when they are of age.”

The Hallowich case against Range Resources, MarkWest Energy and Williams Gas settled for $750,000. The Hallowichs have since moved. Their attorney says their health has improved significantly.

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