Pennsylvania

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Pa. health department updates policies for drilling-related complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Monday it has updated its policies for handling complaints related to Marcellus Shale drilling.

All those who file a complaint with the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology will now receive a letter acknowledging their concerns and outlining the agency’s findings.

The changes follow a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania in which two former employees said they were told not to speak with their colleagues or the public about drilling-related health concerns.

A working group convened by Secretary Michael Wolf in the wake of these allegations found that some people who complained did not receive a formal response from the department.

“What we found was, there wasn’t a standard procedure,” said spokeswoman Holli Senior. “Everything was on a case-by-case basis.”

The department also updated its website to explain the procedure for filing an environmental health complaint. The explanation includes guidance for when to contact the Department of Health or the Department of Environmental Protection.

Senior said high-level officials with both agencies will meet twice a month to discuss all environmental health concerns and have shared contacts to increase their collaborative efforts.

“I believe by implementing these straightforward changes, Pennsylvanians will be better informed about what the department does and how we can be of assistance,” Wolf said in a statement.

While the department is billing the changes as improvements, some environmental groups and public health advocates say the state needs to address the agency’s past practices.

In a letter to legislators this week, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Physicians for Social Responsibility and PennEnvironment are calling for an investigation by the state’s Auditor General into allegations employees were discouraged from returning calls from people who complained about drilling. Last month, the Auditor General’s office faulted the DEP’s for mishandling public complaints about water contamination and natural gas development.

“This practice could have limited the [Health] Department’s professional staff from accurately monitoring and responding to health problems related to our state’s unconventional gas industry,” the letter says.

The groups are also asking the department to make public all drilling-related health complaints.

Senior said the secretary’s working group has discussed it, but the department’s legal team has concluded it cannot release the information to the public. The department says it has logged 57 complaints since 2011. According to Senior, they fall into three categories: water quality, air contamination and “physical symptoms.”

“Our working group is going to continue and we understand that there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “We’ll certainly be considering a lot of different options moving forward.”

Correction: The most recent figure for the number of drilling-related health complaints on file with the Department of Health is 57, not 51. High-level officials will meet twice a month, not twice a week to discuss environmental health issues. 

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