Faster action sought on drilling-related health questions

HARRISBURG - A coalition of doctors, nurses, and environmental groups is calling on the Corbett administration to address citizen complaints more comprehensively and better track potential health effects related to natural-gas drilling.

With the rapid rise of drilling and related industrial activity in the Marcellus Shale region, the state is abrogating its responsibility to protect public health, health professionals said at a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.

“The role of the Pennsylvania Department of Health is to ‘prevent injury and disease,‘ and to ‘lead the development of sound health policy and planning.‘ Yet when it comes to fracking, the DOH has done little to prevent exposure or lead policy development,” said Julie Becker, a professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

The group sent a letter signed by 400 health professionals urging the department to create a statewide registry to track complaints and monitor environmental health issues.

“The administration and the Department of Health are exploring a number of options, including working with private entities to accomplish the goals of health registry in a cost-effective and comprehensive way,” said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni.

Becker said a registry accessible to the public and medical professionals would provide researchers with accurate data; without it, research and decision-making are hindered.

The coalition’s request comes two months after a State Impact public-radio news report cited former Health Department officials as saying they were told not to respond to gas-drilling health complaints.

The Department of Health disputes those contentions, saying employees were never told not to speak to a member of the public with any type of health complaint.

Department spokeswoman Holli Senior said the agency was upgrading its website, streamlining the reporting process, and implementing a mandatory written-response policy.

Since 2011, the department said, it has received 58 complaints about health problems from gas drilling, but evaluations by the department found no connection to drilling activity, Senior said.

The original legislation in 2012 creating the Marcellus Shale drilling impact fee contained $2 million set aside for a health registry, but that was later stripped out.

State Rep. Greg Vitali of Delaware County, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bill that would establish a registry, make reporting of cases by doctors mandatory, and increase disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Vitali said he thinks the reason his bill has stalled is opposition from pro-drilling interests.

“Proponents of drilling are generally against the idea of a registry,” he said. “They don’t want a link established between drilling and public health because it’s bad for business.”

Senior said the state is responding and recognizes the need for transparency while at the same time balancing concerns about health privacy.

“We believe the steps we are taking moving forward show we’re trying to be as transparent as possible,” she said. “We are following up on all complaints, and we’ve kept the ball rolling.”, 717-783-2584, @inkyamy

First Published August 19, 2014 8:00 PM

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