Although I had planned on beginning this blog with a general overview of energy in our society and the main sources available to us, I couldn’t help but cover this article regarding the settlement of a fracking lawsuit in Pennsylvania (the original article can be found here).
Meet the Hallowiches. They are a husband and wife team with two children who own a 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant (45 miles outside of Pittsburgh). On the other side, we have Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of drillers and pipeline companies including Chevron Corp, Peoples Natural Gas, Range Resources, and Talisman Energy, In 2011, the Hallowiches filed a lawsuit against several of the companies involved in drilling at the Marcellus Shale location. The lawsuit claimed that the shale gas drilling close to their 7-acre farm led to air and water contaminants causing burning eyes, sore throats, headaches, earaches, as well as a decrease in their property value.
The key point here, however, is regarding the settlement. Range Resources has agreed to give the Hallowiches $750,000, however as part of the settlement, the family agreed to a non-disclosure agreement in which none of the family can discuss the settlement OR fracking in general (this is known in the legal circles as a gag order). Including the kids!
According to several law professors interviewed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, it is common for such agreements to occur in these types of lawsuits to prevent the monetary amounts in the settlement to become public. However, the inability of the children to even discuss fracking (for the rest of their lives? the settlement is unclear in this regard) is seen as unprecedented. When the residing judge in the case was asked if this might infringe upon first amendment rights, he replied, “That’s a law school question, I guess.”
Now, when I was at a recent physics conference in March, I attended a 3-hour symposium on the most up-to-date research on fracking and its environmental consequences. After 3 hours of lectures by various experts from universities, drilling companies, public policy think-tanks, my take-home message was simple: We still have no idea what the long-term consequences of fracking will be on the environment, and, more importantly, there appears to be a huge variability in study outcomes such as local water contamination when comparing different drill sites (along with this report focusing on the Marcellus Shale that indicates a huge spread in waste management practices).
This is what makes a lawsuit like this so important – it’s a way for our society to communicate what risks are appearing. Obviously, the government has decided to continue with drilling despite our lack of evidence-based knowledge, but this makes it more important to disseminate possible health and environmental concerns as they arise. But if this type of settlement is typical, then one of the main ways for others to hear about the dangers of fracking, by hearing the stories of those affected, is suppressed. In a world where money buys propaganda, we are swamped by commercials funded by drilling companies that tell us that there is nothing to worry about. So I would imagine much of the public has either had their initial fears assuaged or simply have not been given access to information to the contrary. When it comes to large corporations, the dissenting voice is quiet but must be heard when it has the chance.
It should be noted that the Hallowiths’ health has recovered since moving away from the fracking sites, and a recent update states that shale gas drillers in Pennsylvania will now be required to create an air quality plan approved by the Department of Environmental Protection or implement stricter emission controls. So there are positive changes happening in terms of holding these large corporations accountable. But upholding freedom of speech at the cost of these corporations’ public image is not one of them, at least not in this case.
I’ll definitely post future more in-depth discussions about fracking and the current research available regarding its environmental effects. But it’s important to spread the news when drilling companies are working so hard to cover up something that is supposed to be so ‘clean.’