Groups call for investigation into health department’s handling of drilling
Despite calls from environmental groups, it is not clear that there will be an investigation into how the Pennsylvania Department of Health handled complaints about Marcellus Shale natural gas development.
“At this time, we are not looking to audit the Department of Health on this issue,” said Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
DePasquale’s office recently completed an audit faulting the state Department of Environmental Protection for mishandling public complaints about water contamination and unconventional shale development.
Woods said the Auditor General’s office will continue to “monitor what goes on” at the Department of Health.
A spokesman for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said he could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”
StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported that two former state employees said they were told not to speak to the public about drilling-related health concerns.
Representatives from three environmental and public health groups – the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and PennEnvironment – staged a press conference at the State Capitol on Tuesday. The groups said they want answers about the department’s past practices.
Dr. Julie Becker, a public health researcher with PSR Philadelphia, called for an investigation “by an independent body of public health and healthcare professionals to assess whether the agency violated policies and procedures and stonewalled efforts by citizens to report and evaluate the health effects of fracking.”
The department recently announced improvements to the way it handles environmental health complaints, including updates to its website and a written-letter policy.
The groups welcomed these initiatives, but said they also want the agency to release details about the 57 drilling-related complaints it has logged since 2011. Such inquiries are maintained by the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, but have not been made public because they contain private information.
Ruth McDermott Levy is an associate professor at Villanova University’s College of Nursing, and a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. She says the state already publicly reports other health incidents, such as cancer diagnoses.
“We can clean that information up so that we can’t track it back to an individual,” she said. “In public health it’s called reporting in aggregate.”
Levy said more transparency will help restore trust between state regulators and health providers.