Health Surveys

  • Pa. health chief wants to analyze drilling areas.  Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Corbett’s top health adviser said Friday that he wants to make Pennsylvania the first state to create a registry to track illnesses in communities near heavy drilling in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation to determine what kind of impact, if any, the activity has on public health.

Health Secretary Eli Avila told Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission that creating such a registry is the timeliest and most important step the Department of Health could take, and that his agency is not aware of anything like it in other drilling states.

“We’re really at the frontiers of this and we can make a speedy example for all the other states,” Avila told the commission at its fourth meeting.

Collecting information on drilling-related health complaints, investigating them, centralizing the information in one database and then comparing illnesses in drilling communities with non-drilling communities could help refute or verify claims that drilling has an impact on public health, he said. The aggregation of data and information also would allow the Department of Health to make its findings public, in contrast to the privacy that surrounds its investigation into individual health complaints and the findings that may result.

The Marcellus Shale formation, considered the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir, lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the past three years and thousands more planned in the coming years as thick shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful and profitable source of natural gas.

The rapid growth of deep shale drilling and its involvement of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, chemicals and often-toxic wastewater are spurring concerns in Pennsylvania about poisoned air and water.

“As drilling increases, I anticipate, at least in the short term, a proportionate increase in concerns and complaints which the department must be prepared to address,” he said.

In the past year or so, the Department of Health has received several dozen or so health complaints, he said.

One woman, Crystal Stroud of Granville Summit in northern Pennsylvania, told an anti-drilling rally in the Capitol this month that she is hearing from others in Bradford County about bizarre and sudden health problems that they blame on contaminated water from the area’s heavy drilling.

Stroud herself blames her barium poisoning on well water polluted by drilling near her home, and accused state agencies of turning a blind eye.

“I am extremely confused as to why our Health Department is not interested in these issues and no one from (the) Pennsylvania Health Department has contacted us, and why are they not investigating this?” Stroud, 29, told the crowd on June 7.

“Every week I receive a phone call from someone different in my county that has unexplained rashes, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, high barium levels, a child with blisters all over his face from his mother bathing him in the water, and even a woman whose spleen burst in an unexplained way, all with contaminated water,” she said.

A spokesman for Corbett has said both the departments of Health and Environmental Protection have active investigations into Stroud’s claims, and the company that drilled the well, Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas LLC, has denied responsibility for Stroud’s health problems.

On Friday, Avila said his agency has found no links between drilling and the illnesses and diseases presented to it so far, but he added that a wider study is necessary to determine whether there are any associations, and a health registry could accomplish that.

Such health registries are common, and in the past have been created to monitor and study data related to cancer and rare diseases, health department officials said. To set up a drilling-related registry and fully investigate drilling-related health complaints would require another $2 million a year for the department and possibly require the help of the state’s schools of public health, Avila said.

Shale drilling requires blending huge volumes of water with chemical additives and injecting it under high pressure into the ground to help shatter the thick rock — a process called hydraulic fracturing. Some of that water returns to the surface, in addition to the gas, as brine potentially tainted with metals like barium and strontium and trace radioactivity by the drilling companies.

Text of Avilla Testimony

  • T. Colborn. Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective. International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. In Press. Sept. 2010.

  • DISH, TX Health Survey

  • PAVILLION, WY  Wilma Subra. Health Survey, Aug. 2010 AP Report on Pavillion survey  Earthworks Press Release, AP Report on Pavillion survey.

  • Feds Warn Residents Near Wyoming Gas Drilling Sites Not To Drink Their Water

  • Abraham Lustgarten, Pro-Publica, Sept. 1, 2010  Environmental Protection Agency unveils new policy to discourage stonewalling on health and safety

  • EPA to review claims to “trade secrets” in revealing chemical compounds used in oil and gas extraction

  • The Dark Side of the Boom: How Natural Gas Drilling in Texas Threatens Public Health and Safety    AUSTIN, TX, APRIL 14 — State, local and federal officials and regulatory agencies are failing to protect Texans from the health and safety risks of the natural gas boom, according to a report released today by the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP).State Sen. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth joined OGAP, other state advocacy organizations and community groups in releasing Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety. The report finds that authorities either lack the resources to deal with the air pollution, water contamination and other problems that accompany natural gas production; are limited in their response by inadequate laws and regulations, or continue the long Texas tradition of favoring the oil and gas industry at the expense of citizens.The report gives voice to the families and communities on the front lines of a public health crisis that is spreading from the Barnett Shale region in North Central Texas to other parts of the state. It pulls together for the first time detailed results of air and water testing as well as health effects data linking residents’ symptoms to toxic chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).Flowbackroundly criticizes the inadequacy of policies and the response of authorities at all levels of government, but reserves its sharpest criticism for the Texas Railroad Commission: long the oil and gas industry’s lapdog, (the commission) must become a watchdog. The state Sunset Commission recently recommended the complete restructuring of the Railroad Commission because of conflicts of interest with the industry.We want to lift the veil of denial that hangs over the gas patch, said Sharon Wilson, organizer for Texas OGAP. The reports of health and safety effects across two dozen counties are real, not coincidences or isolated examples. Current laws make it hard to tie a specific illness to a specific well, but residents of these communities know that where drilling goes, problems follow.Burnam is among state lawmakers trying to address the problems, as the author of bills to prohibit gas wells within 1,200 feet of schools and to reduce air pollution by requiring vapor-recovery units on wells in the Barnett Shale. The report welcomes those efforts but says broader reforms are needed, including:

    • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must strictly enforce emission limits from oil and gas exploration and production equipment

    • As the Sunset Commission recommends, the Texas Railroad Commission — whose members currently are elected, often with hefty campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry — should be replaced with an appointed commission that puts the health and safety of Texans first. The new commission should require full public disclosure of drilling and fracking chemicals on a well-by-well basis.

    • The Texas Water Development Board must evaluate the impact that hydraulic fracturing, which uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for each injection.

    • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should identify sources of drilling chemicals in groundwater and regulate air pollution from oil and gas exploration and production.

    For More Information

    Download Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety


    Sharon Wilson, Texas OGAP, (940) 389-1622

    Bill Walker, Texas OGAP, (510) 686-3122

    Andy Wilson, Public Citizen Texas, (512) 477-1155

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