By Mike Ludwig, Truthout.org, May 17, 2012
The “Rogers” family signed a surface-use agreement with a fracking company in 2009 to close their 300-acre dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania. That’s not the end of the Rogers’ story, but the public, including the Rogers’ own neighbors, may never learn what happened to the family and their land as drilling operations sprouted up in their area. The Rogers did not realize they had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the gas company making the entire deal invalid if members of the family discussed the terms of the agreement, water or land disturbances resulting from fracking, and other information with anyone other than the gas company and other signatories.
“Rogers” is not the family’s real name, it’s a pseudonym offered by Simona Perry, an applied anthropologist who cannot reveal the family’s identity. Perry has been working with rural families living amid Pennsylvania’s gas boom since 2009. Mrs. Rogers initially agreed to participate in a study Perry was conducting on rural families living near fracking operations. She later called Perry in tears, explaining that her family could no longer participate in the study because of the nondisclosure clause in the surface-use agreement. She told Perry she felt stupid for signing the agreement and has realized she had a good life without the money the fracking company paid them to use their land.
Perry has been working with and collecting data on rural families living amid Pennsylvania’s gas boom since 2009, and she told Truthout that the Rogers were not the only family who could not share their experiences due to nondisclosure agreements. Perry said the nondisclosure agreements prevent doctors and researchers from gathering valuable data on the health and environmental impacts of fracking and have a chilling effect on people and communities living near the rigs.
“As communities struggle to contend with these impacts and risks in their daily lives, citizens are forced or sometimes unknowingly sign a nondisclosure agreement, [and] they have lost their freedom to speak and share their knowledge and experience with their neighbors,” Perry said. “As a result, whole communities have been silenced and repressed.”
Controversial hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas drilling methods known as “fracking,” involve pumping water and chemicals deep underground to break up rock and release oil and gas. Advanced techniques have facilitated an oil and natural gas boom across Pennsylvania and beyond in recent years and brought the drilling close to homes and farms.
Besides air emissions standards recently introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency, fracking remains largely unregulated by the federal government and has been linked to earthquakes and air and water contamination across the country. Fracking companies disclose some of the chemicals used in fracking fluid, but others–and their concentrations–are often exempt from disclosure because they are considered trade secrets. Other exemptions buried in state and federal law allow drillers to avoid disclosing contents of fracking fluids after they return from deep underground.
Dr. Jerome Paulson, a physician and director of Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, said that the fracking industry has told the public that the drilling procedure is safe, so there is no reason to hide information on health impacts from public view. Nondisclosure agreements with private landowners and disclosure exemptions, Paulson said, are preventing doctors from doing their jobs and protecting the public.
“How do we provide appropriate treatment recommendations to those who are ill?” Paulson asked during a recent press conference. “For the population of individuals who are healthy, how do we provide prevention recommendations when we don’t have the information?”
A spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group that represents fracking companies in Pennsylvania, was not available for comment.
Chris and Stephanie Hallowich and their children thought they had found their dream home when they moved onto a farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, but they did not know the prior owner had leased the gas rights to a fracking company, according to Matthew Gerhart, an attorney for the group Earthjustice. The family soon found themselves surrounded by gas development as fracking companies exploited the gas-rich Marcellus Shale that runs under much of the state.
The Hallowich family became outspoken opponents of fracking and said that they and their children began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and sore throats as drilling operations expanded on their land and in their neighborhood. The family tried to get the attention of the media, state regulators and the gas companies, but ended up filing a lawsuit in 2010 and abandoning their home.
The lawsuit was settled last year. The settlement hearing was closed to the press, and the gas companies persuaded a common please judge who approved the settlement to permanently seal it from public view, according to Gerhart, who assumes the settlement includes a nondisclosure agreement. Two area newspapers, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer Reporter, have since sought access to the court records, but were initially denied. Last week, the newspapers appealed the judge’s decision denying them access to the records to the state’s Superior Court.
Dr. Paulson joined Earthjustice, Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other groups in filing a brief in support of the newspapers’ appeal, arguing that the public deserves access to crucial information about the potential health impacts of fracking.
“We’re involved in this case because the gas companies’ insistence on confidentiality is the tip of the iceberg, for one example, of a pattern of secrecy and in other contexts,” said Gerhart, who hopes that the effort to unseal the records will be a step toward greater industry transparency. “We need real data and access to the real people that are affected by fracking.”
The brief filed by Earthjustice and the doctors’ groups lists 27 cases in heavily fracked states such as Colorado, Arkansas, Texas and Pennsylvania where details of the case or the settlement are being held out of public light due to sealed court records and nondisclosure agreements.