Gas drilling prompts fight against health department accreditation

A grass-roots coalition says it will try to block the national accreditation sought by the Allegheny County Health Department because the department has failed to protect public health by opposing shale gas development in county parks.

The group, Protect Our Parks, sent a letter to the Health Department on Friday announcing its intent to work against the accreditation, and it plans to publicly state its opposition at today’s Board of Health meeting.

John Detwiler, a POP spokesman, said the health department is putting political considerations ahead of public health by following the lead of county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has backed shale gas development. And the health department’s “Plan for a Healthier Allegheny,” produced in October after a series of public meetings, ignores the health impacts of shale gas development, he said.

“That plan brought this to a head because it validates fracking in our parks,” said Mr. Detwiler, a retired engineer. “And that’s contrary not only to the public input the department received, but also to a growing body of scientific and medical evidence."

He said health officials did nothing to oppose the shale gas development by Range Resources now taking place under Deer Lakes Park.

“We don’t have a specific request for action by the board right now, but we hope the board takes more of a pro-public-health position when the county starts to look at more drilling and fracking in the county’s parks,” Mr. Detwiler said.

In January 2014, the Board of Health, at the urging of director Dr. Karen Hacker, agreed to seek accreditation with the Public Health Accreditation Board, a nonprofit established to promote uniform, national public health standards. Since the program started in 2011, 80 health departments in the U.S., including eight state health departments but not Pennsylvania, have been accredited.

Dr. Hacker issued a statement Tuesday saying monitoring shale gas development activity is a “priority” of the health department, and it is conducting air and water sampling at Deer Lakes Park and at Pittsburgh International Airport, where the county also has leased gas drilling rights to Consol Energy.

She said the department enforces all air quality regulations at the well sites and investigates all complaints but has not found pollution levels exceeding national standards. The monitoring data can be viewed on the department’s website at​shale/​index.html.

Dr. Hacker also said the county supports state efforts to launch and monitor a health registry on health impacts related to shale gas development.

“The department included [shale gas development] as a priority in its Plan for a Healthier Allegheny, along with air and water quality,” Dr. Hacker said. “A large group of stakeholders are currently refining objectives and strategies to be implemented by various groups — not just the Health Department — to ensure that public health is not adversely affected by this emerging industry.”

Kaye Bender, president and chief executive officer of the accreditation board, declined to comment on the controversy. And Teddi Nicolaus, a spokeswoman, said she wouldn’t discuss the process for objecting to accreditation or if any other health department had been denied accreditation due to local opposition.

Mr. Detwiler said coalition members planned to meet Saturday to finalize its submissions to the accreditation board.

Don Hopey:, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey.

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