These two things happened in the summer of 2011:
- US EPA administrator Lisa Jackson told a Congressional committee, “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water,” echoing industry insistence that not a single water well had been affected by fracking [see “The Mother of All Fracking Lies,” The Daily Impact, 8/17/2011];
- A large fracking company, Range Resources Corp., agreed to pay a Pennsylvania family $750,000 to shut them up about how a fracking operation next to their 10-acre farm had polluted their water and air, seriously damaging their health.
That frackers lie is not the headline. Here’s the headline: in approving the settlement agreement, the court imposed on the family’s two minor children, then 10 and seven years old, a lifetime ban on talking about fracking or the Marcellus Shale region.
The agreement, unsealed fully by the court last week, enjoined the adult Hallowiches, Chris and Stephanie, from talking in public about the destruction of their farm and life by the proximity of four wells, gas compressor stations and a 3-acre water impoundment operated by Range Resources. That has become the norm in fracking country, where companies want to avoid public exposure of the awful reality of fracking as described in scores of lawsuits. To avoid conviction, and description of their transgressions in public court records, they offer “settlements” with gag orders attached.
A case can be made for the availability of this option. Families are often desperate, as the Hallowiches were, to get themselves and their children away from a toxic environment, and trials take a lot more time than settlements. Many families might not have the resources to pay for a long trial, and finding a lawyer who will take the case “on spec” can be difficult in a region in the grip of hysterical greed.
But minor children? How do you explain to them that if, for the rest of their lives, they use the words “fracking” or “Marcellus Shale,” they will have committed a crime? (Or at least a tort.) And if you can explain it, how do you justify it? And if you can explain and justify it, how do you enforce it? Is some suit from Range Resources’ law firm going to follow these kids around, making sure, for example, that if they are diagnosed with cancer they never mention to their doctor the words “fracking” or Marcellus Shale?”
Meanwhile the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, was entirely within his rights to proclaim, as he did a few months before the Hallowich case was heard, “To our knowledge, there have been a million wells fracked, and no documented cases of contamination of groundwater from hydraulic fracturing.” He was speaking to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in January of 2010. Talk about contempt of Congress.
It is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (the Second Amendment is, well, number two): our guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press. It is regrettable that it has become routine for corporations to demand and get legal limitations on individuals’ freedom of speech, simply to avoid embarrassment. It’s a shame that the legal tradition — that a person cannot sign away Constitutional rights — is being abandoned.
Bit it is an unmitigated disaster when a judge finds it acceptable to impose on a seven-year-old child a lifetime limitation on free speech, in order to protect the sensibilities of the oil fracker who destroyed her family’s home and dreams. A traumatic experience of which she must never speak.
And let us please remember this: the second guarantee incorporated in the First Amendment is of freedom of the press. Aside from the Guardian, a British newspaper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (which has pursued the story relentlessly from the beginning), the lies of the EPA administrator and the Exxon CEO, the long trauma of the Hallowich family and now the abusive, perpetual restraints placed on their innocent children, have merited virtually no coverage from the mainstream media. Apparently they have no skin in the game.
When they gagged small children for their lifetimes, I did not speak up, because I wasn’t a small child