Drillers Silence Fracking Claims With Sealed Settlements
ByJim Efstathiou Jr.&Mark Drajem-Jun 6, 2013 12:00 AM ET
The companies insisted hydraulic fracturing -- the technique they used to free underground gas -- wasn’t the cause. Nevertheless, in 2011, a year after the family sued, Range Resources Corp (RRC). and two other companies agreed to a $750,000 settlement. In order to collect, the Hallowiches promised not to tell anyone, according to court filings.
The Hallowiches aren’t alone. In cases from Wyoming toArkansas, Pennsylvania to Texas, drillers have agreed to cash settlements or property buyouts with people who say hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, ruined their water, according to a review by Bloomberg News of hundreds of regulatory and legal filings. In most cases homeowners must agree to keep quiet.
The strategy keeps data from regulators, policymakers, the news media and health researchers, and makes it difficult to challenge the industry’s claim that fracking has never tainted anyone’s water.
“At this point they feel they can get out of this litigation relatively cheaply,” Marc Bern, an attorney with Napoli Bern Ripka Sholnik LLP in New York who has negotiated about 30 settlements on behalf of homeowners, said in an interview. “Virtually on all of our settlements where they paid money they have requested and demanded that there be confidentiality.”
Because the agreements are almost always shrouded by non-disclosure pacts -- a judge ordered the Hallowich case unsealed after media requests -- no one can say for sure how many there are. Some stem from lawsuits, while others result from complaints against the drillers or with regulators that never end up in court.
“We are transforming our energy infrastructure in this country from burning coal for electricity to potentially burning a lot of natural gas,” Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview. Non-disclosure agreements “have interfered with the ability of scientists and public health experts to understand what is at stake here.”