Energy. Environment. Economy.

Former health secretary: Pa. failed to address fracking concerns

Pennsylvania's former health secretary says he believes the state has failed to address public concerns about fracking, "What are you so afraid that we're going to uncover?" he told the Associated Press.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Pennsylvania's former health secretary says he believes the state has failed to address public concerns about fracking, "What are you so afraid that we're going to uncover?" he told the Associated Press.

Former state health secretary, Dr. Eli Avila, is telling the Associated Press he believes Pennsylvania has failed to address public concerns related to natural gas development.

“The lack of any action speaks volumes,” Avila told the AP. “Don’t BS the public. Their health comes first.”

His comments come in the wake of an investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania, which revealed health department employees were instructed in 2012 to forward drilling-related complaints to the agency’s Bureau of Epidemiology. Two former employees also say they were told not to respond to phone calls from people complaining about natural gas operations.

The Department of Health disputes their claims. A spokeswoman said there was never an effort to suppress information or not return phone calls, and that the department has tracked 51 drilling-related complaints since 2011 and followed up on all them– finding no evidence linking gas operations to illness.

Avila resigned from his post in 2012, amid a lawsuit from a Harrisburg restaurant stemming from an argument over an egg sandwich. He now works as the public health commissioner for Orange County, New York. He told the AP he believes Governor Corbett is a “good man” who has been hurt by political advisers who have kept him from hearing from health experts.

At a press conference earlier this month Corbett ignored questions from StateImpact Pennsylvania about the matter. His spokesman, Jay Pagni, later said the Governor’s Office had no role in the health department’s policies.

The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission Corbett convened in 2011 recommended that the Department of Health create a population-based registry, but it was ultimately cut from the final legislation.

When asked by the Associated Press on Friday whether he supports creating a public registry of health complaints, Corbett said he was unaware of where the Department of Health stands on the issue.

“I’d have to know what they’ve been talking about before I can answer that,” he told the AP.




  • William L. Yingling M.D.

    I believe that chemical endocrine disruptor pollution in the Susquehanna River presents a potentially serious health hazard to all Pennsylvanians eating the fish and drinking the surface water from this watershed. The problem arises from numerous sources and I believe the inappropriate dumping of wastewater (fracking fluid) into the watershed has added significantly to an already serious problem.
    In 2010 I voiced my concern to the PA Department of Health about chemical contamination of the watershed in an effort to enlist their help for the investigation of a dump in Northumberland County that many of us felt presented a public health hazard and should be listed as a superfund site.
    I was told then that it was the responsibility of PADEP to do any investigation and provide actionable information on potential threats to human health due to contamination of the water supply. Really?
    I have very little confidence that anyone is collecting “actionable” epidemiological information on human health and disease caused by the chemical contamination of the water supply.
    WIlliam L. Yingling M.D.

  • Vernon Bell

    The DEP has for years investigated the effects of fracking. Several other states, including New York, have done the same. Australia has a vigorous fracking industry. No state agency or other responsible authority has uncovered a health threat caused by fracking. The net effect of fracking natural gas is: a cleaner environment. Even the New York Times has come to that conclusion.
    By all means, continue to test and hold frackers to very high standards. But for heaven’s sake, stop this mindless and “evidence-free” opposition to this wonderful new technique. We will reap the rewards– a cleaner environment, added jobs, and energy independence for the U.S.

    • William L. Yingling M.D.

      I am just one mindless physician expressing his opinion based on the significant amount of science that has associated the chemicals in our environment with the human ailments that we call diseases. There are animal studies and epidemiologic studies that make this association. The problem is that getting evidence , the kind of evidence that government and industry accepts, would require doing human studies to prove the epidemiologic association. That is unacceptable and inhuman. So we ignore the evidence; we cloud the issue and require absolute proof, the kind that is impossible in our society today.
      What most choose to see are the trees…the rewards…that is the jobs and the energy independence ($$$)…..and they miss seeing the forest…the negative impact on health and human development.
      William L. Yingling M.D.

      • Vernon Bell

        You seem intelligent and well-meaning. You do understand that the infusion of the fracking solution takes place at a depth that would prevent its ever making its way into drinking water, correct? It is approximately 5,000 feet below ground. My understanding is that we get our drinking water from 1,000 feet and less.

        • NorthernTier

          Not exactly. The compounds used in fracking fluids are stored as concentrates on the surface. They’re mixed with water at the surface and injected into the well bore from the surface. A varying percentage returns to the surface as flow-back, where it’s often stored in an open, plastic-lined impoundment. When it’s no longer practical to re-use the fluid, it usually goes to a treatment facility or an injection well. However, some is de-watered and goes to a landfill or is buried on site (along with the liner). It’s simplistic to describe fracking as a closed process at ~5,000′ depth, with virtually no chance of public exposure to the chemical compounds used in fracking fluid.

          The New York Times isn’t “authoritative” when it comes to U.S. natural gas development coverage. They do (finally) Have a “Natural Gas (Fracking)” topic page:

          There is an RSS feed for the page.

          • Vernon Bell

            There are certainly downsides to fracking, but natural gas from fracking (over coal and oil) is a net win for the environment.

        • William L. Yingling M.D.

          Thank you. I attempt to apply common sense to my observations.
          So…how deep is groundwater? The groundwater that we get from our wells is relatively shallow. But there is groundwater deeper in the earth where fracking is done and it may take generations until it appears in your descendants wells or rains down on them as precipitation. (That is if we all last that long!!)
          Then again it appears clear to me that groundwater that we use is being impacted by fracking. What is the result of injecting this chemical laced water under great pressure into the shale. Fractures are created and water under pressure finds whatever avenue it can to escape. What is it that is bubbling up into the bottom of the Susquehanna River, into bogs and marshy areas and into people’s wells but methane and other unnamed chemicals that have migrated under immense pressure, pressure that may even be moving plates of the earth and causing earthquakes. It seems to me that industry tends to minimize the problems that are occurring, cover them up or attribute them to “natural phenomenon”. Nonesense. Do we really know what we are doing? Then too…I am told that the drill casings do not always hold and allow avenues for escape of toxic chemicals. Safe?
          And..finally…what can we say about a government organization (PADEP) that allows waste frackwater that is withdrawn from this mining process to be returned to the watershed without being cleansed. For at least 3 years (maybe 5) we objected strenuously to the return of this wastewater to the Susquehanna watershed from a local power plant. The public was assured it was safe but we knew that the sedimentation and basic filtration processes used did not remove the organic chemicals. Then smallmouth bass began appearing in this section of the river with black spots that at least one marine biologist says are cancer (melanoma). I do not have a research lab at my disposal but it is more than a coincidence these two events occurred so close in time.
          The hard, cold facts are that the Marcellus shale operation in Pennsylvania has and is contaminating our environment.
          William L. Yingling M.D.

          • Vernon Bell

            You may not have a research lab at your disposal, but the state does. It is a very good one, too. With all due respect– what makes you think our DEP (under Rendell and Corbett) would engage in an environmental coverup? I assume you are a person of good motives. Can you not extend that same courtesy to the scientists and engineers at DEP? Are they knaves or idiots?

          • WIlliam L. Yingling M.D.

            They are definitely not idiots. But in my personal contacts with both the management (I am sure there are many good engineers and marine biologists in both organizations) of PADEP and the PA Fish and Boat Commission regarding water pollution issues…my experience has been that they are servants (knaves if you like that word) to the economic interests of the organization or the political/economic interests of those who have appointed them rather than the interests of the environment and the citizenry of Pennsylvania.
            William L. Yingling M.D.

      • Vernon Bell

        One other thing. When the NY Times did its most recent article, it was a “qualified endorsement” of fracking. You should google it. They did not say that it is without its drawbacks. They concluded that given the real world alternatives (coal and oil among them), more fracking would result in a cleaner environment.

    • kenneth weir

      asbestos,cigarettes,agent orange, ddt,love canal,syphlis testing, wmd,s what more needs to be said!

  • kenneth weir

    Socializing the costs while privatizing the profits. The health concerns of the citizens of this state are irrelevant to the almighty buck, the god and goddess of corporate Tom and his handlers.

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