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Silencing Communities: How the Fracking Industry Keeps Its Secrets

Many homeowners unknowingly sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent researchers from gathering data on the health and environmental impacts of fracking.

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A spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group that represents fracking companies in Pennsylvania, was not available for comment.

Headaches, Nosebleeds and Sealed Records

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 in 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.


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