Newspapers in Fracking Secrecy Case Win Support of Doctors, Scientists

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, May 2, 2012 (ENS) – In a lawsuit over gas industry secrecy, doctors, scientists, researchers and advocates filed court documents supporting two newspapers seeking access to information that could shed light on the health impacts of gas development, including the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Fracking involves the injection of a mixture of chemicals and water under high pressure into shale rock, fracturing it to release hydrocarbons.

The “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” and the “Observer-Reporter” are seeking to overturn a court order dated January 31, 2012, sealing the record in the case ofa Pennsylvania family who sued several gas companies and the state Department of Environmental Protection over health impacts they suffered from gas development operations that polluted their air and water.

The companies are fighting to keep the records sealed.

Represented by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, the group filed a brief in court Monday intervening in the case in support of the newspapers.

The intervenors argue that no Pennsylvania court has ever held that court records may be sealed on nothing more than a party’s assertion that it would not have settled but for the confidentiality assured by a sealing order.

They are trying to persuade the court that the gas companies’ “private interest in sealing the record does not outweigh the public interest in access to information,” about the public health effects of natural gas development.

“Understanding and preventing any health risks from gas development depends on public access to information on the industry,” said Earthjustice attorney Matthew Gerhart. “The gas industry should spend less time trying to conceal information and more time disclosing information necessary to understand the true risks of fracking and gas development.”

The Hallowich’s farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. The red circle indicates the farmhouse surrounded by gas development. (Photo by Marcellus Protest)

The initial case against the gas industry was brought by Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, who after moving their family to a farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania found themselves surrounded by the expanding natural gas industry as companies drilled wells on their property and built gas processing facilities nearby.

Both parents and children began suffering unexplained headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes, and sore throats.

“In order to treat patients exposed to toxins from gas development, doctors need access to a wide range of information,” said one of the intervenors, Dr. Jerome Paulson of the Children’s National Medical Center. “The gas industry has information that could prove vital to our patient’s health and we are asking the court to make it available.”

After unsuccessfully trying to get state regulators and the gas companies to address the problem, the family sued. They settled with the companies and left their farm.

Before the agreement, the Hallowiches had been outspoken critics of gas industry abuses. But as a condition of the settlement, the companies required the Hallowiches to sign a non-disclosure agreement and the family has not been able to speak out about the case since.

Stephanie Hallowich speaks at a public meeting, September 15, 2010. (Photo by Marcellus Protest)

Non-disclosure agreements have been required in other lawsuits against the gas industry, as this chart of related cases in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia shows.

The intervenors argue that these agreements deprive the public of information in the record that could help to protect other families in similar situations.

“People living in communities where the gas industry operates have important firsthand knowledge of the impacts of gas development. But time and again, these people are silenced by industry-mandated non-disclosure agreements in lawsuits as well as leases,” said Dr. Simona Perry, research scientist with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“As their neighbors struggle to contend with these impacts, they are unable to share their knowledge. Whole communities are impacted as a result,” said Perry, another member of the intervenor group.

The nondisclosure agreements are part of what Earthjustice calls “a wide-ranging pattern of industry secrecy.”

The industry has lobbied for, and won, exemptions from portions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and other federal laws with right-to-know requirements.

In Wyoming, the gas industry has fought a state law requiring that it disclose the identities of chemicals used in fracking, submitting claims to keep secret the identies of more than a hundred chemicals.

In Pennsylvania, industry lobbied for Act 13, which was signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett in February. The new law limits the information doctors can share about health problems linked to gas development activities and also limits local government control of the gas industry.

“From Wyoming to Pennsylvania and Colorado to Louisiana, the gas industry is fighting to keep the toxic secrets of drilling out of the public eye and to retain special exemptions to the laws that protect public health and the environment,” said Bruce Baizel, staff attorney with Earthworks, one of the intervenors. “They claim that what they do is safe, but if it is, why do they have so much to hide? We intend to find out.”

The current fracking-enabled gas drilling boom across the United States has brought reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, and sick families. But industry secrecy has made it tough for researchers to get the facts on health and environmental impacts of fracking.

“Scientists studying the health and environmental impacts of fracking and gas development need data in order to do their job,” said Stan Scobie, PhD, senior fellow with Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, one of the intervening groups. “The gas industry may prefer that we not have the information we need, but the public good clearly outweighs industry’s preference for secrecy.”

The gas companies that won the court order sealing the records are: Range Resources Corp., Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream, Markwest Energy Partners and the Markwest Energy Group.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.