In actual fact, this story has been 'out' in the US for quite some time, so it's hardly the scoop that the Guardian are claiming. More importantly, however, are the numerous facts left out in the name of a good scare story.
Court gagging orders are never going to make for good PR, but the key question must be: did Range Resources actually cause contamination of the Hallowich water supplies or air quality? Everything else is just lawyers throwing their weight around.
Pennsylvania DEP conducted an investigation into the Hallowich groundwater, and their findings are available. Here are their conclusions, which I shall selectively quote from below:
you allege that Range Resources has contaminated the supply [...] After a review of the information, including primarily water analyses, we cannot affirm your conclusions.Importantly, Range actually drilled their well in July 2007. The Hallowiches only purchased the property in June 2007, and didn't drill their water well until October 2007, 3 months after the shale well was drilled. Therefore they can have no evidence regarding water quality prior to shale drilling.
Acrylonitrile and styrene appear to have been identified as an offending chemicals. However,
RT’s [a water testing lab] own sampling did not measure any styrene at the reported detection level. How styrene might be related to gas well drilling is not clear. However, the water lines in the Hallowich household, as well as from the water well to the house, are PVC which contains styrene.and
Acrylonitrile is used in the manufacture of plastics, glues, pesticides, ABS pipe (common drain line pipe used in homes; the “A” in ABS stands for acrylonitrile ), synthetic rubber, acrylics, carpets, dinnerware, food containers, toys, luggage, automotive parts, appliance, telephones, among others. It can also be washed from the air by rain and then enter the groundwater system. There is a plastic rock which has been placed over the water well and could be leaching contaminants into the ground during rainfall events, which interestingly enough is when Mrs. Hallowich reports that the acrylonitrile values seem to increase based upon on-going sampling that apparently has been occurring.This might be why, in the absence of any data prior to drilling, the DEP tested water from nearby wells close to the shale drilling, and did not find acrylonitrile or styrene:
the results taken at a neighboring property (163 Avella Road), which is also close to the gas well, only shows a lead problem; the other four parameters are either non-detect or within drinking water standards.In conclusion, the DEP summarise:
Mrs. Hallowich alleges that the drilling of the gas well polluted the aquifer. [...] we are lacking any direct evidence to prove this assertion.
we question your conclusions about the contamination problems to the Hallowich water supply. The only parameter that is clearly above the MCL is manganese, and we cannot clearly link it to the drilling of the Range Resources gas well. Therefore the DEP cannot issue a water supply replacement/restoration order to Range Resources.This area also formed part of a DEP study into air quality impacts of Marcellus drilling, similarly finding that
Given the above data, it is perhaps not surprising to find that, in the court documents, the Hallowiches concede that:
the screening results found during the five-week study did not indicate a potential for major air-related health issues associated with the Marcellus Shale natural gas activities
1. With respect to Plaintiff minors’ alleged claims involve nuisance and personal injury claims, there is presently no medical evidence that these symptoms are definitively related to any exposure to the activities of Defendants...When the court order to 'un-gag' these documents were made, there was much excitement in the media in the hope that a smoking gun was about to be revealed. Much has been made about such gagging orders: surely now the release of one such set of documents would catch the frackers red-handed. Instead, they found instead that once again, water and air testing by the relevant government agencies had failed to find evidence of fracking-induced contamination:
2. The minors have alleged claims for nuisance and personal injury in connection with Defendants’ business operations. There is presently no medical evidence supporting that these claims related to any exposure to Defendants’ business operations as set forth in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.
There's no doubt that gagging clauses make for bad PR. However, this case shows that just because they have been used, doesn't mean that there is evidence for shale gas pollution. In fact, as the Pittsburgh-Tribune has the headline, it might be better to describe the situation as: Couple collect $750K settlement in fracking case with no medical evidence.
The information I've presented above is easily-locatable in the public domain. Which begs the question - why does none of it make it into the Guardian's latest scare story? I think we're all fine with media organisations that take a well established editorial line - it's unlikely the Guardian are ever going to favour shale gas extraction. However, I'm a lot less happy with irresponsible scare-mongering, which is what I see this to be.