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.