Pennsylvania lags in studying health risks of shale fracking

Will NY fracking ban affect Pennsylvania approach to drilling?

New York and Pennsylvania share a border, but on shale gas policy the states are separated by a gulf.

The breach widened last week when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced that state will ban fracking, citing uncertainty about the health risks posed by the oil and gas extraction process.

In Pennsylvania, where elected officials from both parties embrace shale gas development, government leaders are still debating whether to fulfill a three-year-old recommendation for how to study the potential impact of shale gas development on public health.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission urged the state Department of Health in 2011 to create a health registry to track the well-being of people who live near natural gas drilling sites over time. The project was not funded, and the registry was never created.

Could the starkness of New York’s warning influence policy in Pennsylvania?

“I don’t put a lot of stock in the New York analysis,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff for state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the Senate president pro tempore.

Mr. Scarnati introduced legislation last year to create a Marcellus Shale health advisory panel to review research and make recommendations about gas development. That bill died without much movement, but Mr. Crompton said Mr. Scarnati is still willing to advance the proposal in a new legislative session.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, a Democrat, wants to create a registry to monitor health issues related to shale development, his spokesman said.

Mr. Crompton said proposed funding for a health department registry was withheld in the past out of fear that regularly testing residents who live near wells would be “improperly unnerving” for communities.

“We have always been careful about this subject because we don’t like a study or some sort of analysis done under the premise that it’s unsafe,” he said.

A state health department spokeswoman said the agency tracks and responds to all Marcellus Shale-related health complaints, which now number 76 since 2011.

“At this time, the department has not seen a direct link to negative health outcomes related to Marcellus Shale drilling,” spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said.

The department is also exploring options and partnerships “to accomplish the goals of a registry,” including participating in an ongoing study being led by Geisinger Health System based on “health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near natural gas wells and facilities,” she said.

Bernard Goldstein, a public health expert and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, suggests that by failing to conduct health studies, the state has unintentionally helped narrow the regions where the industry can operate.

One example: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that overturned the uniform zoning provisions in the state’s Marcellus Shale law last year was based in part on the idea “the Commonwealth failed in its responsibility to obtain information that people could act upon,” he said.

“This same lack of information certainly played a role in New York State’s approach. Had the governor done what his own advisory commission advised him to do there would have been these kinds of studies,” he said, referring to Mr. Corbett. 

Dr. Goldstein advocates taking a more active approach to investigating shale-related health impacts than creating a registry. “You take a look and you try to see what’s happening,” he said. “You don’t just sit back and wait and put things in a log book.” 

He thinks Pennsylvania still has time to begin collecting robust health data.

“It’s a shame we didn't start at the beginning,” he said. “It would have been better to have gotten the baseline information. But it’s not too late to start.”

Laura Legere:

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