A 10-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister have been forbidden from discussing fracking for the rest of their lives under the terms of a court settlement with several gas companies. According to Mother Jones, representatives of Range Resources Corporation -- one of the gas companies named in the settlement -- confirmed in court that both the parents and children of the Hallowich family are prohibited from discussing the health issues and environmental factors that drove the family to relocate from their farm in Mount Pleasant, PA.
Chris and Stephanie Hallowich received a settlement of $750,000 from three gas companies -- Range Resources Corp., Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and Markwest Energy -- pertaining to health and environmental damages caused by a natural gas drilling operation near their home. It is not uncommon for large businesses to stipulate that recipients of settlements cannot discuss the damages or terms of the settlement. It is more unusual, however, for the terms of the agreement to extend to children.
A transcript of one of the hearings leading up to the settlement revealed that the family's lawyer, Peter Villari, attempted to make certain the family knew what they were agreeing to:
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 bet 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.
Later in the same hearing, attorney James Swetz, representing Range Resources, asserted that the ban should extend to the Hallowich family children, a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter.
"I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family," Swetz said. "We would certainly enforce it."
Hallowich, said Mother Jones, said that it would be difficult to constantly monitor the children, that there is no way to ensure that none of the list of "illegal words" would come out on the playground, for example.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette spoke to representatives of Range Resources, who distanced themselves from Swetz' remarks.
Range spokesperson Matt Pitzarella told the Post-Gazette that Swetz' assertion that the children should be included in the gag order is "not something we agree with." The company, he said, has never issued gag orders on children and "we don't believe the [Hallowich] settlement applies to children."
Villari disputes this version of events. He told the Post-Gazette that when Swetz made his statements about the gag order, he assured the court that he "had the full authority to speak on his client's behalf."
The non-disclosure agreement, Swetz said in court, "extended to the minor children" and that the company would be "still insisting on the full extent of those obligations."
University of Pittsburgh law professor Harry Flechtner told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday that if such an agreement exists, it would be very uncommon.
"They are children and can't be bound by such an agreement, a contract, but the wild card is the court approval of the agreement," he said.
Villari said that if the company is not going to force the children to remain silent, he wants proof that they're free to speak openly.
"It's news to me that they say they are now releasing the children," he told Post-Gazette writer Don Hopey, "but I'd appreciate it if they'd put that in writing. It would be very nice to do that."
[Pretty sad little girl in yellow coat with hood put finger to lips in city autumn park via Shutterstock.com]