June 20, 2014

Public Health Impacts Of Oil And Gas Drilling

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The debate over the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling is incredibly polarized.  There’s widespread fear – fear of water contamination, of air and noise pollution.  When a drilling rig literally goes up in your backyard, its a matter of huge concern, as we reported recently in southeastern Wyoming.

The problem is, there’s very little science out there backing claims of health impacts, or refuting claims of health impacts.  The drilling boom has happened so quickly that public health departments, as well as regulators and inspectors, have not had enough time to know where the problems are, and what to do about them.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has been covering the energy issue and drilling impacts in the Marcellus Shale for a few years now. This week they broadcasted an important story about how the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health actively discouraged employees from discussing public health concerns related to drilling:

One veteran employee says she was instructed not to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development.

Retired employee Tammi Stuck described how employees were given a list of “buzz words,” like fracking, gas and soil contamination:

There were probably 15 to 20 words and short phrases that were on this list. If anybody from the public called in and that was part of the conversation, we were not allowed to talk to them.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health denied the claims, saying that all complaints were sent on to the Bureau of Epidemiology and that since 2011, 51 complaints had been made but no link was found between drilling and illness.

More study needs to be done on the public health impacts of fracking.  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for a widespread study of health and environmental impacts, while the state of Maryland is funding a study.  The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in Pennsylvania in 2011 recommended that the Department of Health there set up a health registry to monitor impacts.  But that registry has never been funded.

Responding to an inquiry from Stateimpact reporter Katie Colinari, Todd Hartman of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources explained the following:

Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission investigates all complaints with (sic) 24 to 48 hours. When people lodge a health complaint, agency staff collect information about the activity the individual believes may be related and then we inspect those operations for any problems or anomalies.

He explained further that the state collects the information in a public database.  Inside Energy will be looking into this for a story next week.