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How are energy boom states dealing with drilling-related health complaints?

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Different states are addressing the impacts of shale drilling on public health in different ways.

Is heavy drilling making some people sick?

It a question doctors, public health researchers and regulators in oil and gas-producing states are still struggling to answer roughly six years into the American shale boom.

So far, one thing is clear: different states approach the issue of public health and drilling in different ways.

StateImpact Pennsylvania teamed up with Inside Energy - a collaboration of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – to learn more about how states are dealing with the intersection of drilling and public health. Here’s what we found:

  • Three states – including Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Dakota – log complaints in databases.
  • Five of the state health departments we contacted said they were not tracking health complaints at all.
  • Two states have put large-scale drilling on hold until they complete reviews of the environmental and health impacts of drilling.

Some states not tracking health complaints

“The Ohio Department of Health does not maintain a database nor do we have a monitoring program,” said spokeswoman Melanie Amato in an e-mail. “The Ohio Department of Natural Resources tracks oil and gas complaints, but nothing related to health.”

Similarly, officials in Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and West Virginia said their agencies had little or no regulatory role in oil and gas development. All five states referred us to their oil and gas commissions or environmental protection departments.

In West Virginia, health officials in one county have struck out on their own.

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Intersex fish found in three Pa. rivers; DEP sampling waterways

A recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, including the Susquehanna.

Scott LaMar/WITF

A recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, including the Susquehanna.

The LA Times reports the state Department of Environmental Protection has begun sampling waterways in response to a recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey which found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins.

Male fish carrying eggs were found in the Delaware, Susquehanna and Ohio River systems.

The USGS said the findings show that exposure to chemicals that disrupt endocrine or hormone systems – such as estrogen – may be more widespread than researchers previously thought.

More from the LA Times: 

Amanda Witman, a DEP spokeswoman, said the agency is testing two tributaries of the Susquehanna River: Juniata River and Swatara Creek.

The USGS research said that two fish species, smallmouth bass and white sucker, were exhibiting intersex characteristics due to exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals — hormones and hormone-mimicking chemicals that caused the male fish to produce eggs.

“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewage discharges,” said Vicki Blazer, a fish biologist and lead author of the USGS study.

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Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front

For the last eight years, Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy 2013 drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site.

It didn’t take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain 2013 about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes.

But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations.

The agreement also defined the company’s operations as not only including drilling activity but the construction of pipelines, power lines, roads, tanks, ponds, pits, compressor stations, houses and buildings.

“The release is so incredibly broad and such a laundry list,” said Doug Clark, a gas lease attorney in Pennsylvania who mainly represents landowners. “You’re releasing for everything including activity that hasn’t even occurred yet. It’s crazy.”

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Family of worker killed in southwest Pa. gas well fire sues Chevron

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron Appalachia.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron.

The family of a worker who was killed in a February explosion at a Chevron natural gas well site in Greene County has filed suit against the company.

Ian McKee, 27, was a contract worker with Texas-based Cameron International. On the morning of Feb. 11, McKee was participating in a safety meeting on the site in Dunkard Township when state officials said one of three wells on the pad burst into flames, killing McKee and leaving another worker with minor injuries.

The fire continued to burn for five days. McKee’s remains were found more than a week after the explosion. He left behind a fiancee who was pregnant with his child.

John Gismondi, a lawyer for McKee’s parents, Denise Olsen and Robert McKee, said they are filing suit in order to make a legal claim for information about the circumstances of their son’s death.

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Governor’s office denies involvement with health department drilling policies

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Governor Tom Corbett refused to answer questions about allegations state health department employees were silenced on the issue of natural gas development.

A StateImpact Pennsylvania investigation has revealed that in 2012, employees were sent a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” as part of a guidance for how to handle drilling-related health complaints. The words and phrases included drilling, fracking, Marcellus Shale, skin rash, and cancer cluster. The list was accompanied by instructions to send complaints to the Bureau of Epidemiology.

Two department staffers — now retired, but active when the guidance was sent out — said employees were also instructed orally not to discuss symptoms and other information with callers who mentioned words or phrases on the list. The retired workers claim they were also told not to personally to return phone calls from people who used the words.

Documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania also show that starting in 2011, community health employees were required to get high-level permission to attend meetings and forums on Marcellus Shale topics.

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In Colorado, a public database for drilling-related complaints

Weld County, Colorado resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

Courtesy of InsideEnergy

Weld County, Colorado resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology logs complaints related to natural gas development in a database that the agency says is not available to the public.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported that department employees were also given a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” as part of a guidance on how to handle complaints. Two former health department staffers and some public health advocates question whether the state’s policies are keeping complaints from reaching the Bureau of Epidemiology for follow-up. The department of health says all complaints are investigated.

Other oil and gas states are dealing with the issue of health and drilling in different ways.

A report by Inside Energy – a collaboration of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – takes a look at how western states are responding.

In Colorado, all complaints related to oil and gas drilling are posed to a public database maintained by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Inside Energy also reports the database complaints from the public as well as inspections and remediations.

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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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New gas well regulations slipped into budget bill

Natural gas wells in Springville Township, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Natural gas wells in Springville Township, Pa.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports state Republican leaders have inserted controversial last-minute language to one of the budget bills that would change how Pennsylvania’s natural gas wells are regulated.

The bill requires state regulators to distinguish between two types of oil and gas wells– conventional, shallow wells, and deeper modern unconventional shale wells.

From the Inquirer:

Environmental groups say inserting the language into the fiscal code is tantamount to circumventing the legislative process, including debate on the floor.

They also say they object to the fact that the proposed language does not make it clear what the new regulations would be for traditional shallow wells.

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Federal court dismisses doctor’s lawsuit over Act 13 “gag rule”

Capitolwire reports a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from a Luzerne County doctor over an aspect of Pennsylvania’s drilling law (Act 13) that deals with health professionals’ access to information about the chemicals used in fracking.

More from Capitolwire:

Federal District Judge Richard Caputo found Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez lacked standing to sue the Department of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Commission because he failed to meet certain criteria to show he suffered an “injury in fact” that “must be concrete in both a qualitative and temporal sense.”

Rodriguez, a Luzerne County physician, claimed the law violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights. A nephrologist who specializes in the treatment of renal diseases, hypertension, and advanced diabetes, Rodriguez said he was unable to obtain critical information about the quality of local water needed on a daily basis for his practice from gas drillers as a direct cause of the “medical gag rules” contained in Act 13, according to the court order.

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New York’s highest court allows towns to ban fracking

A fracking site in Harford Township, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A fracking site in Harford Township, Pa.

New York State’s highest court ruled today that towns are allowed to ban hydraulic fracturing within their borders.

From the New York Times:

The two towns at the center of the case – Dryden, in rural Tompkins County, and Middlefield, in Otsego County – amended their zoning laws in recent years to ban fracking, on the basis that it would threaten the health, the environment and, in Middlefield’s case, the “rural character” of the community.

Subsequently, an energy company that had acquired oil and gas leases in Dryden and a dairy farm in Middlefield that had leased land to a gas drilling company filed legal complaints, arguing that the town ordinances were pre-empted by state oil and gas law.

On Monday, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling rejecting that argument, and found that the towns did indeed have the authority to ban fracking through land use regulations.

The seven-judge panel was split 5 to 2 on the case. The majority, in its decision, made clear that it was not ruling on the benefits or risks of fracking, simply on a question of the division of power between state and local governments.

Shale gas development has been on hold in New York since 2008 when the state began an ongoing environmental review process.

Earlier this year the head of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters he believes it’s “extremely unlikely” his agency would issue permits before 2015. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has remained largely silent on the issue, saying he will allow science to decide the matter.

Over the years, the state has missed a series of self-imposed deadlines to finalize its environmental review.

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