Energy. Environment. Economy.

Maryland takes a public health approach on fracking that Pa. hasn’t tried

Trucks drive down Towanda's main drag. Click on the image to view StateImpact Pennsylvania's new multimedia project, called "Boomtown."

Becky Lettenberger / NPR

Trucks drive down Towanda's main drag. Truck traffic is one driver of increased air pollution from unconventional natural gas drilling.

Air pollution is among one of the greatest public health concerns related to Marcellus Shale drilling, according to a new health impact assessment released this week by the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Commissioned by the Maryland Department of Public Health through an executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley, the study assesses potential environmental health impacts should Maryland open up its western edge to Marcellus Shale drillers. The report comes at a time when healthcare workers and environmental groups are calling for an investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s handling of Marcellus Shale-related complaints. And it stands in contrast to how Pennsylvania has addressed health concerns related to Marcellus Shale.

A health impact assessment starts with what is called “scoping,” reaching out into the community to find out what concerns and questions already exist. Then it gathers baseline public health information on the community. This takes a snapshot of residents’ current health status, which then provides a method for future comparisons should drilling occur in the area. The report does not predict future health impacts from natural gas development. Rather it looks at all the available epidemiological studies that form the basis of potential health concerns. In this case, the researchers then rated these concerns, with air pollution topping the list. Pennsylvania never did a similar health impact assessment for Marcellus Shale drilling. It would be impossible to do one now because the drilling boom began almost 10 years ago.

It’s important to note that the report was limited by the available research. The researchers did not rank water pollution as a high public health concern simply because they say there’s not enough data available to draw strong conclusions.

“It’s not as if we say water pollution is not a concern,” says researcher Donald Milton. Milton directs the Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland. Milton says one of the problems associated with doing the impact assessment was that states like Pennsylvania, which have established shale gas development, have not done any longterm health studies before or since drilling began.

“That’s clearly something that Maryland needs to be doing not only on the exposure side,” said Milton, “but also on health side.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is doing a long-term ambient air quality study in Washington County, and the results are due out at the end of October. But Milton says the available literature on air quality and natural gas development is pretty clear.

“Air pollution will be a problem,” said Milton. Part of the Maryland study’s recommendations include a 2,000-foot setback from well pads and compressor stations to occupied buildings based on air pollution concerns. Pennsylvania has no such requirements.

The conclusions on air quality are not a surprise to Joe Minott, who runs the environmental group Clean Air Council.

“There is no step in the natural gas processing and transportation that doesn’t release air pollution,” said Minott. Minott is critical of the Pennsylvania DEP, saying its current study is too little too late.

“The biggest difference is that the state of Maryland wanted to know what the impact of unconventional gas drilling would be on the citizens of Maryland,” said Minott.


  • JimBarth

    The Maryland study recommends a 2,000 foot setback from well pads and compressor stations.. As far as I know, PA has a zero foot setback from pads, and a 300′ set back from a shale gas well. The only limit for a pad, or an open air waste “water” flow back storage impoundment is your property line, so God forbid your house is close to your lessor neighbor’s property line. The NYS/PA lessors and lessor lovers wonder why so many residents are against shale gas extraction?

  • Tom Shepstone

    Exactly what literature says “literature on air quality and natural gas development” says “air pollution will be a problem”? Shouldn’t Milton have been challenged on that? Of course, but he wasn’t because it fit the template State Impact wanted for this story. I can say the literature shows just the opposite based on DEP records available to anyone. Also, Minott is simply a paid functionary of the Heinz Endowments who has been against fracking from the beginning.

    • JimBarth

      What Mr. Shepstone would like us to infer from his post is that the shale gas and oil extraction and distribution industries, do not create serious air pollution, let alone a pollution problem at all, when to the contrary, it is inherent to the industries, and has been documented, over and over again just during the past decade, whether in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, or any of the other thirty plus states that this abomination is allowed to be performed. He also wants us to infer that StateImpact Pennsylvania is utterly biased to publish such a story as this?
      If any reader believes either of those propaganda sales pitches, you should immediately purchase a house (not just large areas of vacant land), with your entire life savings, within the active extraction zones. Put your money where your mouth is. Enjoy the resulting “quality of life” the industrial gas/oil extraction land creates.

    • Steve Todd

      And just exactly why do we think the Heinz Endowments who has been against fracking from the beginning?

    • DeanMarshall

      Tom Shepstone has a Vested Interest in the Gas Industry and is on the payroll of Petroleum Propagandists. This is a man who tried to convince an auditorium full of bright young Bloomsburg University students that ” Golf Courses use more water than Fracking”, whereupon his audience responded in unison, ” But they don’t poison the water on Golf Courses and it returns to the Hydrologic Cycle!” Tom is never going to accept ANY Scientific Study that conflicts with his “Drilling is perfectly safe” BULLSHIT!

    • JimBarth

      Above is a link to just another almost daily brick in the wall concerning reports about the oil and gas extraction industry’s inherent toxic emission problem involving nearly all parts of the extraction process. This one out of The Salt Lake Tribune paper has today as its dateline, and reports on waste “water” open air flowback “ponds” in that State. This location in Utah accepts the waste from the drilling and frac’ing in Colorado. This industry has created a ground level ozone contamination in rural Wyoming worse than experienced in the city of Los Angeles (smog). Any extraction location that has been functioning at high industrial capacity for a few years, be it the Bakken, Barnett, Eagle Ford, whether in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana or Pennsylvania, whether compressor stations, production fields, or, flow back open air waste impoundments; you name it, they create toxic contaminated air.

  • Steve Todd

    Imagine a govt of, by and for the citizens that, PRIOR TO rolling out the red carpet for an industrial land use conducts a health impact assessment, Imagine that it starts with what is called “scoping,” reaching out into the community to find out what concerns and questions already exist. Then it gathers baseline public health information on the community.

    Just imagine that, fellow PA citizens.

  • Euripedes

    One more reason to vote straight D this November…..

  • Kathy

    Check Ohio if you need more on what is to come. So afraid for half my children and all my grandchilfren stuck in the middle of all that pollution and. Poor air quality. My son has adthma and he’s sicker more often now than ever before, right in Northeast to mid state PA. I wrote to Atty General in PA about the DEP and EPA and concerns about fracking. Glad MD is trying to take some precautions with baselines, etc

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