After being sued by a group of families in Pennsylvania with methane-contaminated water, fracking giant Chesapeake agreed today to pay the families a $1.6 million settlement. What’s particularly noteworthy is, for perhaps the first time, the details of a fracking case are being made public.
The oil and gas industry has gotten used to operating in secret, typically forcing families to sign non-disclosure agreements before it will settle any pollution lawsuit (see this chart for more details.) But in this case, the families refused to stay quiet and insisted that details of their case be made public. That’s big news.
This spring, Earthjustice was involved in a similar court case in which a Pennsylvania family sued several gas companies over health impacts related to air and water pollution from nearby natural gas development operations. Like so many other cases, the companies settled but forced the family to stay quiet. Local newspapers challenged the secrecy and sued, arguing that the public is entitled to the information. We wholeheartedly agreed, which is why we filed a brief in the case on behalf of doctors, scientists and researchers, arguing that the information could be critical to protecting public health.
These nondisclosure agreements are just one example of a wide-ranging pattern of industry secrecy. 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 important right-to-know requirements. In Wyoming, the gas industry fought a state law requiring that it disclose the identities of chemicals used in fracking, submitting claims to keep secret more than a hundred chemicals. In Pennsylvania, industry lobbied for Act 13, which among other things seeks to limit information doctors can share about health problems linked to gas development activities.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration signaled this week that it was considering allowing the oil and gas industry to continue this pattern of secrecy, suggesting that it would take their cues from industry when drafting new EPA rules on what information industry would be required to disclose about the chemicals they pump underground during fracking.
But that flies in the face of what health professionals are calling for – not to mention President Obama’s own promise during the State of the Union that gas drilling activity would not come at the expense of public health.
Hopefully, today’s news is a sign that the tides are turning against oil and gas industry secrecy. The question is this: is President Obama paying attention?