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Pa. health department reaches out to doctors amid controversy over drilling complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to respond to people who called with drilling-related health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to return calls from people drilling-related complaints.

Are doctors in Pennsylvania seeing patients with possible health effects from natural gas development?

The state Department of Health wants to know.

The agency reached out to physicians through the Pennsylvania Medical Society this week, following a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania into how the agency handled drilling-related health complaints.

In a message on the society’s website, the department asks health professionals to contact the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology if they have encountered patients with symptoms they suspect could be related to natural gas operations.

Two retired state employees told StateImpact Pennsylvania that in 2012, community health staffers were instructed not to return phone calls from people who complained about gas development, but to forward the caller’s name and number to a supervisor.

In the wake of these allegations, state health secretary Michael Wolf wrote an editorial published on PennLive.com on July 22.

In it, Wolf made several claims about how the agency has addressed the potential impacts of shale gas development, including:

  • That the department “has conducted outreach on the issue” through the Pennsylvania Medical Society,
  • That the department has been “working with schools of public health in Pennsylvania to further understand and study the potential health impacts of drilling,”
  • That the department “will continue to carry out related monitoring activities under Act 13 of 2012,” the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law.

Neither Wolf, nor a department spokeswoman mentioned these initiatives in prior interviews with StateImpact Pennsylvania.

We checked in on where these initiatives stand. Here’s what we found out.

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Drilling plans for Loyalsock State Forest quietly move forward

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests, including the Loyalsock, environmental groups are opposing a proposed expansion in an area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests--including the Loyalsock--environmental groups are fighting a proposed expansion in an ecologically sensitive area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest are quietly moving forward. Last month the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages drilling on public lands, met with two gas companies who own mineral rights there.

More than a year has passed since DCNR held a contentious public meeting on the issue in Williamsport. Since then, the agency has released very little information publicly.

Nearly 500 people attended that meeting, and everyone who spoke over a three-hour period expressed either opposition or concern. In a response to an open records request from the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, DCNR said it did not keep a record of the comments.

A DCNR spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

The plans unveiled last summer involve 26 well pads and four compressor stations on a 25,000 acre swath of the Loyalsock forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a popular area for wildlife enthusiasts and hikers.

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Proposed Pipeline Project to Get Federal Scrutiny

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Federal regulators announced this week that a controversial pipeline expansion project will undergo an extensive environmental review. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate pipelines, will do an environmental impact statement on the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project.

Oklahoma-based Williams has proposed an expansion to their Transco natural gas pipeline, which would run through parts of north and central Pennsylvania. The pipeline has garnered intense opposition in Lancaster County. As a result, the company has changed part of its original route to avoid nature preserves.

The Transco pipeline system moves natural gas through more than 10,000 miles of existing pipes. The expansion project is part of a larger effort to get Marcellus Shale gas to end users like power plants.

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Corbett agrees to hold off on new gas leases on state lands pending lawsuit

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site.  Fossil fuel production itself utilizes a lot of energy.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site. Fossil fuel production itself utilizes a lot of energy.

The Corbett administration has agreed to hold off on leasing any more state land for natural gas drilling until a case challenging the practice is settled.

In exchange, the environmental group suing the stateagreed not to challenge the use of state conservation money to fund the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit to halt all drilling in state forests back in 2012. But when Governor Tom Corbett announced earlier this year his plans to lift a moratorium on new forest leases to fill a budget gap, the Environmental Defense Foundation sought an injunction to halt any new drilling.

The group also asked the courts to prevent the Corbett administration from channeling funds from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the general fund, or cover the budget of DCNR.

Leasing the state’s forests to Marcellus Shale drillers began under the Rendell administration, much to the chagrin of DCNR’s leadership and staff. In 2010, just before Rendell left office, he imposed a moratorium on any new forest leases. Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court throws out several challenges to Act 13, including ‘doctor gag rule’ [UPDATED]

The Commonwealth Court has upheld several sections of the state's oil and gas law,  including a provision dealing with doctors' access to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court has upheld several sections of the state's oil and gas law, including a provision dealing with doctors' access to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

This post has been updated to include additional comments on the ruling.

Pennsylvania doctors have nothing to worry about when it comes to the so-called “gag order” on chemical exposures from oil and gas drilling. That’s the message from the Commonwealth Court today in a much-anticipated ruling on provisions of the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law. The court issued the ruling after the Supreme Court passed on the controversy, sending it back to the lower court.

The “gag rule” stems from a section of Act 13, which requires nondisclosure agreements from healthcare providers who seek information on chemical exposures, which may be deemed “confidential” by industry. The law, which was drafted without the knowledge or consultation of healthcare providers, forces doctors to sign a nondisclosure agreement, thereby agreeing not to share any ingredients in the industry’s secret sauce used to frack and drill for natural gas.

Writing for the Commonwealth Court, President Judge Dan Pellegrini says the law is not unconstitutional, and it neither prevents healthcare providers from obtaining the necessary information or sharing it with other health practitioners.

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Environmental groups call for investigation into Pa. Department of Health

Two former employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Health claim they were told not to respond to phone calls from people complaining about natural gas operations.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Two former employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Health claim they were told not to respond to phone calls from people complaining about natural gas operations.

Five Pennsylvania environmental groups are calling for an investigation into the state Department of Health, in the wake of allegations it deliberately ignored public complaints about natural gas operations.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported in June, two former state health workers claim they were told not to respond to phone calls from people who complained about gas drilling. Employees also needed high-level permission to attend meetings and forums about Marcellus Shale topics.

Representatives from five environmental groups– PennFuture, PennEnvironment, Clean Water Action-Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, and the Clean Air Council– issued a joint statement Tuesday calling for an investigation into the Department of Health’s handling of the issue.

“As it stands right now, the citizens of Pennsylvania will be left in the dark of the impacts of gas development,” says PennFuture CEO Cindy Dunn. “They may be local and individualized, but the sooner we know the sooner they can be addressed.”

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Bradford County commissioners ask feds to investigate Chesapeake Energy

A Chesapeake Energy rig in Oklahoma.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, file

A Chesapeake Energy rig in Oklahoma.

Bradford County’s three commissioners have reached out to the federal Department of Justice, seeking its help investigating allegations gas driller Chesapeake Energy is cheating Pennsylvania landowners out of royalty money.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, residents there have been complaining about the issue for more than a year and say they’re disappointed with what they view as a lack of action in Harrisburg.

“It’s still a travesty,” says commissioner Daryl Miller (R). “It’s still an issue that is hurting the working families and senior citizens of our county. As more wells go online, more people are aware of the problem because more people are getting royalty checks.”

Deductions from royalty payments– known as gathering fees or post-production costs– are legal in many cases. The fees enable companies and landowners to share the costs of processing and transporting gas as it moves from the well to the market.

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Pa. confirms drilling “buzzword” list; says it’s meant to guide, not silence employees

State health secretary Michael Wolf said the agency's policies on Marcellus Shale drilling are not meant to silence employees, but to guide them on how to deal with health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

State health secretary Michael Wolf said the agency's policies on Marcellus Shale drilling are not meant to silence employees, but to guide them on how to deal with health complaints.

Did Pennsylvania health department officials circulate a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” and a meeting permission form that led department staff to believe they were being silenced on the issue of natural gas development?

Two weeks ago, when StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported on the buzzwords list and meeting form, the department’s answer to that question was no.

Since then, StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained copies of the documents, which show that department employees needed high-level permission to attend forums on Marcellus Shale.

Agency officials confirm those documents are authentic.

Two retirees with the Department of Health have said that because of the department’s policies, they and their colleagues concluded they were not supposed to respond directly to public health concerns or attend forums about drilling.

Michael Wolf, state Secretary of Health, said in an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania this week that the goal was not to stifle the agency’s roughly 1,400 employees, but to ensure “that we are speaking with one voice.”

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Pipeline route revised to avoid Lancaster County nature preserves

In response to public criticism, a company seeking to build a new natural gas pipeline through parts of north and central Pennsylvania has proposed changes to part of the route to avoid several nature preserves in Lancaster County.

More than 1,000 people turned out to Millersville University Wednesday night for a public meeting hosted by Oklahoma-based Williams Partners. The company is seeking to transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to markets along the Eastern Seaboard as part of its $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise expansion project.

It’s part of a larger effort to rearrange the flow of gas pipeline systems southward to accommodate the rapid growth of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Williams operates the Transco system which has over 10,000 miles of existing pipeline moving gas to other businesses like utility companies and power plants.

Spokesman Chris Stockton says Williams is revising its plans to keep off the Lancaster County Conservancy’s Tucquan Glen and Shenk’s Ferry preserves.

“We’ve actually developed a route that avoids those areas now,” he says. “It is a direct result of the feedback we’ve heard so far.”

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Judge will wait on decision over Corbett’s forest drilling plan

Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson says he will wait until the state budget is completed before weighing in on a lawsuit aimed at blocking the Corbett administration from leasing more public land for drilling.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt additional leasing of public land and the transfer of $117 million from the state Oil and Gas Lease Fund for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) operating budget.

In May, Governor Corbett issued an executive order ending a four-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing of park and forest land in a effort to raise $75 million dollars for this year’s budget.

The lawsuit was the subject of a three-day hearing earlier this month. Both current and past DCNR employees testified that they were reluctant to offer up public land for natural gas development.

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