Actor Mark Ruffalo, an outspoken and longtime opponent of shale gas fracking who is in southwestern Pennsylvania to work on a movie, said lawsuit settlements that prevent those involved from discussing their problems are "un-American" and infringe on the public's need to know about drilling impacts that could damage human health and the environment.
During a break in shooting scenes in Washington County last week for the movie "Fair Hill Project," Mr. Ruffalo met privately with Stephanie Hallowich, a onetime anti-fracking activist. She has been silenced by a nondisclosure agreement contained in the August 2011 settlement of a civil lawsuit against Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, that claimed drilling operations around her family's farm in Mount Pleasant, Washington County, had harmed their health and property value.
"If the gas industry is safe as they claim, why are they trying to hide the stories of people exposed to it firsthand?" Mr. Ruffalo said. "She's bound by that nondisclosure agreement. But those agreements bear witness to what the rest of the population of that area should be privy to know. That information has been muted and hidden, and that is outrageous."
But Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the company stands behind previously publicized environmental, health and safety reviews that determined Range's operations didn't harm the Hallowiches.
Mr. Ruffalo, who was the hulking green cornerstone of the superhero sextet featured in the 2012 Marvel Comics-based movie, "The Avengers," is in the Pittsburgh region until mid-January for his role in the movie that was originally titled "Foxcatcher." The movie, which also stars Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, is the real-life story of chemical fortune heir John Eleuthere du Pont, who went to prison in 1997 for killing an Olympic gold medalist and wrestler.
"It's hard to react without also knowing where Iron Man, Thor and the rest of the Avengers stand regarding clean-burning natural gas," Mr. Pitzarella said. "We have to assume that Captain America supports domestic energy."
A resident of upstate New York, Mr. Ruffalo has spoken often in support of groups opposed to fracking and shale gas drilling nationally and in that state. He said environmental organizations there are asking the state attorney general to compile a list of cases involving non-disclosure agreements to document their correlation to areas of the state where shale drilling is taking place.
The Hallowich settlement, which contained a non-disclosure agreement, was sealed by a Washington County Court judge. But earlier this month the state Superior Court, acting on a petition filed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter, argued that the case file should be unsealed and the county court erred in denying the papers' request to intervene in the case.
Frederick N. Frank, an attorney representing the Post-Gazette, said he will present a petition Wednesday asking the Washington County Court to expedite unsealing of the case.
Mr. Ruffalo said he would like to get out into the region to visit shale gas drilling sites and people affected by the shale gas development activities, but whether he can will depend on the movie's shooting schedule. He said his discussion with Ms. Hallowich could only generally touch on what happened to her so as not to violate the non-disclosure agreement.
"I knew her story already. It's endemic. It's the same story you can hear in Dimock, Susquehanna County, and many other areas across the country where people are being marginalized and victimized and put into a position that they have to take their stories off the market before they can move forward with their lives," Mr. Ruffalo said. "Those people are backed into a corner where their property is useless and their health is in peril.
"She obviously could not get too much into the particulars," he said. "She only told me she is glad not to be living there anymore."