Fracking review nears completion

Sunday December 2, 2012

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Experts reviewing the health effects of shale gas development in New York are among the nation’s most prominent in environmental health, giving opponents hope but the industry concern that reviewers will warn against drilling operations that use hydraulic fracturing.

The state has had a moratorium on "fracking" for shale gas since the Department of Environmental Conservation started an environmental im pact study in 2008. The de partment released proposed new regulations Wed nes day stemming from the study and will take public comment before making them final.

The health review is expected to be completed by Mon day. At least one of the health experts said that while she’s aware some things have gone wrong in communities with shale gas drilling, the health and environmental damage from using gas for heat and fuel may not be as bad as burning coal.

"We know that emissions from burning coal cause tre mendous damage to health," Lynn Goldman of George Washington Univer sity said in an interview with The Associ a ted Press. "A decision not to frack is a decision to use more coal."

Health professionals and en vi ronmental groups in New York called on the Cuomo ad ministration to do a comprehensive health impact study. But DEC Commis sioner Joe Mar tens decided instead to have the state health department and outside experts re view the analysis done by the Department of Environmental Conservation in coming up with the new rules.

State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah chose Goldman, Richard Jackson and John Ad gate to conduct the review. Goldman is dean of George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services. Jackson is chairman of the Depart ment of Environmental Health Sciences at the Uni versity of California Los An geles School of Public Health. Adgate chairs the Department of Environ mental and Occupational Health at the University of Colorado School of Public Health.

Experts raised red flags

All three experts raised red flags for the industry group Energy In Depth. The group sent a letter to Shah saying previous work and statements by them showed anti-fracking bias.

"While voicing concerns is an understandable and at times necessary function of scientific progress, these ex perts have chosen to make statements that contradict well established scientific conclusions about both hydraulic fracturing and shale development," Energy In Depth Exec utive Director Lee Fuller wrote.

In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated wa ter is injected into wells to break up the underground shale and release the gas. Regulators and the industry say the method is safe when done according to rules set by the states. But environmental groups and some scientists say not enough research has been done on air and water contamination or other health and environmental issues.

State and national standards

Goldman, who also is an En vi ronmental Defense Fund trustee, said she brings no bias to the review of New York’s health assessment. The fund is helping develop state and na tional standards to ensure that natural gas is produced in a way that safeguards public health and the environment.

Goldman also was assistant administrator for the Envi ronmental Protection Agen cy’s Office of Prevention, Pes ti cides and Toxic Substanc es, under President Bill Clin ton. During her time there, the EPA strengthened a right-to-know provision under the Toxics Release Inventory and overhauled the nation’s pesticides laws.

"What I think this exercise is about is can New York do this in a way that is safe -- understanding that safety has to be in the context of ‘in comparison to what?’ " Goldman said. "We’re continuing to demand a lot of energy in our economy. There’s no such thing as an absolutely safe way of generating energy at this point."

Jackson is best known as an expert on the links between community design and public health. He produced a four-part documentary series called "Designing Healthy Com munities" that aired on PBS last year. It explored the connection between reliance on car transportation to the rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Energy In Depth takes ex ception to a statement from Jackson on his university de partment’s website, where he mentions fracking in a welcome message to students.

‘Serious worker exposures’

"These most unregulated drilling processes numbering in the hundreds of thousands have impacts on air quality in cluding global warming, drink ing water and other waters, soils, air quality, and nearby populations including by noise," Jackson said on the site. "Fracking involves serious worker exposures and will likely cause silicosis and other lethal diseases."

Adgate was a senior investigator for the nation’s first comprehensive health impact assessment for hydraulic fracturing, for the Colorado town of Battlement Mesa. The study identified health threats and offered ways of minimizing them. County officials ended the assessment before it was completed, saying it had become bogged down in an endless stream of commentary and objections.

The Cuomo administration has refused media and public requests to make the DEC health review public, prompting criticism from environmental groups.

"This is no time for secrecy," Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Children’s En vi ronmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medi cine, said in a statement. "Members of New York’s med i cal community must have ac cess to the documents that are now under review by the team of outside reviewers."


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