Details emerge in secretive Hallowich settlement
Stephanie and Christopher Hallowich were so desperate to move away from their home located next to Marcellus Shale wells and a compressor station that they agreed to a confidential settlement with Range Resources that they thought included a lifetime gag order for their entire family – including their two young children.
The transcript from the Aug. 23, 2011, closed hearing before former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky to finalize the agreement shows the Hallowiches had legal concerns about why the settlement required their two children, ages 7 and 10 at the time, not to discuss the situation and never say “illegal words” specified in the still-confidential agreement for the rest of their lives.
“We have agreed to this because we needed to get the children out of there for their health and safety,” Stephanie Hallowich said in the hearing. “My concern is they’re minors. I’m not quite sure I fully understand. We know we’re signing for silence forever, but how is this taking away our children’s rights being minors now?”
However, a Range Resources official now says it was never the company’s position that the children were under the gag order, although that message was apparently never relayed to the family.
Reporters were excluded from the hearing nearly two years ago, but a transcript of the proceeding became public for the first time this week as the Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which won the right to unseal the previously secret document, continue to seek access to the entire settlement agreement. The main portion of the settlement, labeled as Exhibit B, was not in the Washington County court file when President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca issued a landmark order in the First Amendment case.
The transcript shows Range Resources paid roughly $750,000 for the family’s Mt. Pleasant Township home after the couple became concerned about a natural gas wells and compressor station built adjacent to their 10-acre property. The family later moved into a new home and is not permitted to discuss the settlement or anything relating to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.
The transcript offers a glimpse of what may be in the missing document, alluding what was thought to be a total ban on the Hallowich children from even uttering words related to the local natural gas industry. The Hallowiches’ attorney, Peter Villari, called the lifetime gag order unprecedented.
Villari told Pozonsky in the hearing that the settlement “could be read to forever bar their two children from ever commenting on anything to do with fracking or Marcellus Shale. … I will tell you honestly we objected, but again, it was a take-it-or-leave-it situation and (the Hallowiches) have made, I think, a wise decision on behalf of their family.”
James Swetz, the lawyer representing Range Resources at the time, told the court that the company would stand by the order.
“I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family,” Swetz said. “We would certainly enforce it.”
But Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Wednesday that the company disagrees with that assertion and no longer uses Swetz as outside counsel. He said that has always been the company’s opinion but would not say if or when that point was conveyed to the Hallowiches.
“The kids can say whatever they want,” Pitzarella said. “We have no objection to it. We’re not happy with many aspects of (the hearing), and we’re happy to put it behind us.”
He added that the company did not settle with the family over health or safety concerns, but because the situation was not ideal for either side.
“It did not work for us, and it did not work them,” Pitzarella said. “We’re saying they had a legitimate nuisance claim.”
The two newspapers are still appealing to unseal the rest of the settlement. Pozonsky makes it clear in his discussion that the confidential agreement is “attached thereto” the petition and will be filed as part of the settlement.
The Hallowiches state during the hearing that they wanted the settlement to remain confidential to “protect the children.”