Energy. Environment. Economy.

Fracking health complaints received little follow-up from the Department of Health

Jeanie Moten with her sister on their mother's porch in Rea, Pa. She holds a stack of medical records. The Motens say they received no help from DOH regarding their fracking health complaints. A case file released by the DOH through a Right-To-Know request confirmed that.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Jeanie Moten with her sister on their mother's porch in Rea, Pa. She holds a stack of medical records. The Motens say they received no help from DOH regarding their fracking health complaints. A case file released by the DOH through a Right-To-Know request confirmed that.

Newly released documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on fracking-related health complaints reveal a lack of follow-through and inaccurate record-keeping. The telephone logs, which span four years from 2011 to 2015, were gained through a Right-to-Know request by the environmental group Food and Water Watch.

The documents include about 87 separate complaints from residents and workers who feared exposure to fracking chemicals and were looking for advice from the Department of Health. But notes taken by agency workers show little information is collected from patients.  In some cases, doctors were looking for help. And at least in one case, important details were inaccurate.

The bulk of the complaints came from northeast and southwest Pennsylvania. They often included similar complaints of skin rashes, respiratory problems and nose bleeds.

The names of the patients, physicians and their addresses are blacked out. But Fayette county resident Linda Headley confirms that case number 59 is a complaint she made last August. Although Headley doesn’t own the mineral rights to a property she bought in 2005, she says she has five gas wells on her property, including one Marcellus Shale gas well. She says one of those wells is “problematic” and gas company workers regularly release toxic fumes from what she says is a condensate tank. She says a white misty cloud gets released, some of it gaseous and some of it liquid.

Headley says last July she went out to pick berries with her 6-year-old son. She noticed a gas worker on site.

“We were walking down the driveway and the well-tender kind of looked behind us and he just pushed the button and [waste from the condensate tank went] all over us,” she said. “You could feel the brine all over us and you could taste it. It has a salty bitter taste.”

Dr. Amy Pare at her practice in suburban Pittsburgh.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Dr. Amy Pare at her practice in suburban Pittsburgh. Case numbers 6 and 19 were related to her patients. She says attempts to get help from the DOH were frustrated by constant requests for more information and "paranoid" staffers.

Headley says she and her son were covered in a slippery substance, were coughing, and they felt “shakey.” Despite several people telling her “not to bother” calling the DEP or DOH because “they wouldn’t do anything,” Headley reported the incident right away to the Department of Environmental Protection and later the Department of Health. But she says neither agency followed through with any testing or advice. The Department of Health told her to go to her doctor.

“I thought the health department would know more. You know what I mean?” she said. “But I don’t have health insurance so for me to go and have these tests done I can’t afford it.”

Headley says doctors at a nearby clinic told her they couldn’t help her because they weren’t trained in environmental toxicology.

But what really surprised Headley was looking at the recently released case file, which she says has inaccurate details and false information regarding follow-up. Her then six-year-old son is listed as being 11. The problematic gas well is reported to be 500 feet from her property when it’s 500 feet from her house. The notes report that the Department of Environmental Protection told the Department of Health that ambient air surrounding her house had been tested. She says to her knowledge that’s never happened.

“I’ve been trying to get [the air] tested,” she said. “Nobody wants to test it.”

Neil Shader, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection says, the agency has no record of Headley’s call or the incident on her property.

The case file also reports a letter was sent to Headley by the Department of Health. She says she never received it.

Dr. David Brown is a toxicologist who has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He treats patients exposed to fracking chemicals in southwest Pennsylvania. Dr. Brown says he was “appalled” by both the DEP and the DOH response.

“They should have called 911,” he said.

Brown says this was a clear case of exposure that could have resulted in immediate and dangerous health impacts. He says the person on the other end of the phone had a responsibility to call emergency services. Brown had some terse advice for the Department of Health.

“You’re a state agency, you’re a public health agency, be a public health agency,” he said.

Brown says Headley’s exposure story is similar to patients he’s treated at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a clinic established to care for people exposed to toxins related to natural gas drilling.

“We’ve done detailed exams of well over a hundred people and we always see [exposures to toxic] air and sometimes we see air and water [exposures] combined,” he said. “It’s episodic. You can go for some days and nothing happens, and then something happens.”

But he also says that DEP would know the substances released during the incident and should have followed up with Headley. 

The Right-to-Know request includes documented calls from workers worried about OSHA violations, and toxic chemicals melting their boots. Health professionals and staffers from the federal Centers for Disease Control also made calls on behalf of residents seeking information.

Dr. Amy Pare, a plastic surgeon in Washington County, confirmed to StateImpact that case numbers 6 and 19 were related to her patients.

Pare says it was difficult to get any information from the Department of Health. She says she provided hundreds of pages of health data on workers and residents she treated for skin lesions.

“We faxed hundreds of pages to them,” she said. “After a while my staff said we can’t do this anymore. If you want to be a crusader, you need to do it yourself.”

So Pare took over. But she says the agency kept telling her they needed more information.

“They would say something like, they didn’t have page three. But they didn’t need page three.”

Empty water jugs used to haul clean water hang from a house in Washington County. Residents suspected nearby gas drilling as the culprit. The DEP investigation concluded drilling was not to blame.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Empty water jugs used to haul clean water hang from a house in the small town of Rea, Washington County. Residents suspected nearby gas drilling as the culprit. The DEP investigation concluded drilling was not to blame. According to newly released documents, the Department of Health did little to follow up.

Case number 19 addressed a complaint from four residents of Rea, Pennsylvania. The case notes say the DOH is still waiting on information from Dr. Pare.

Case number six references seven patients treated by Dr. Pare. It notes that the DOH “did a cursory review of the clinical data,” which it then provided to several state and federal public health agencies. There’s no indication that the patients themselves ever received the review. And it’s unclear what the review concluded. But the status reads: “Inquiry Closed.”

On several occasions, Pare says she was told not to engage in any email exchanges regarding fracking health impacts. Instead, she was to give staffers her number, and they had to call her.

“They were definitely paranoid,” she said.

In fact they may have had good reason to be paranoid. StateImpact Pennsylvania reported last year that DOH workers were silenced on drilling-related health inquiries. One veteran employee told StateImpact she was instructed not to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development.

“We were absolutely not allowed to talk to them,” said Tammi Stuck, who worked as a community health nurse in Fayette County for nearly 36 years.

Normally, when fielding calls, Stuck would discuss the caller’s problem, ask about symptoms, and explain what services the department or other agencies could offer.

But for drilling-related calls, the protocols were completely different. Stuck said she and her fellow employees were told to take the caller’s name and number and forward the information to a supervisor.

“And somebody was supposed to call them back and address their concerns,” she said, adding that she never knew whether these callbacks occurred.

StateImpact also reported on a list of fracking “buzzwords” that if mentioned by a caller, the DOH employees were not allowed to speak to them. Employees also reported getting reprimanded for discussing anything related to shale gas at public meetings.

The call logs released through the Right-To-Know request have few details, lacking the name of the company drilling nearby, or even the name or number of the well site suspected of releasing toxic chemicals into the air, or polluting water wells.

Skylar McEvoy holds up a sign at a rally in Butler, Pa. She and her family moved after they say fracking polluted their water. Her mother Kim says the DOH was no help.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Skylar Sowatsky holds up a sign at a rally in Butler, Pa. She and her family moved after they say fracking polluted their water. Her mother Kim McEvoy says the DOH was no help.

Dr. Brown says information gathering at the department has to improve.

“[To find] out out first what people are exposed to,” he said. “The second thing that needs to be done is we have to find out how the people are being exposed and how much. And the third thing that needs to be done is we need to systematically look at the health effects that they’re experiencing.”

He also says local M.D.’s need training on how to recognize environmental exposures, and where to go for help.

“If you come in with a rash, how is the physician supposed to know that that’s a rash from some chemical released in the middle of the night next to a child’s bedroom,” said Brown. “They can’t know that. We’re looking at what could be long-time serious health problems from living near these wells.”

The Department of Health released a statement saying it is reviewing current protocols. Governor Wolf is seeking $100,000 in his proposed budget for a Marcellus Shale health registry.

Dr. Pare wants to see the department do more right now to help residents struggling with health issues in the gas fields.

“I think they should send people down here to check it out,” she said. [The DOH] has never done that. [The gas drillers] are making tons of money doing this. I think for less than $50,000 you can send a couple of high school kids door-to-door and have people pee in a bottle. This is un-American. This is wrong. I find this appalling. You can make lots of money doing honest healthy work and this is neither.”

Read the documents obtained by Food and Water Watch below. Note: Personal identifying information has been redacted by the Department of Health.


  • DoryHippauf

    Per Act 13 – Medical professionals are required to sign a confidentiality agreement, also known as the medical gag, when asking for a list of chemicals used on a well pad. For medical professionals, this list is suppose to cover ALL chemicals including those deemed to be trade secrets.

    Aside from the medical gag which prevents medical professionals from discussing the chemicals with anyone, the biggest block is that there is NO CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT IN EXISTENCE. How can a medical professional sign a confidentiality agreement when there is no confidentiality agreement?

    DEP doesn’t have it, DOH doesn’t have it and the drilling corporations do not have it.

    Nor is there a procedure in place as to to who to contact from such an agreement.

    You would think that 3 years from the time Act 13 was signed into law, that there would be a procedure and documents in place.

  • macman2

    Thank you State Impact for this interesting report. The Corbett Health Dept basically ignored health problems as a favor to the gas industry. Unfortunately, the Wolf Administration is doing the same because they want to tax shale gas development for schools. The heath dept. has an obligation to develop a health registry and do training on the health consequences of fracking. We should be very wary given the known health effects of being exposed to the fracking chemicals.

  • MrPittsburgh

    REA, PA is where the entry road to Cross Creek County Park is located. The park has 6 drilling pads inside the park and the lake has been the scene of several fish kills, with the 2009 fish kill clearly linked to a spill while Range Resources was fracking. The second fish kill was blamed on low water levels (Range was authorized to withdraw water from the lake) and the third fish kill, about one month ago, was blamed on spawning stress, but of the several species of dead fish only one species spawns at that particular time.

    Then there are these results from USGS testing in 2009:
    Flowback & Produced Water (Brine) from Cross Creek County Park 6H

    PA DEP Permit #125-22830
    Date of Samples: 4-9-09 & 6-29-09
    Radium 226 in Brine (pCi/L) 951
    Radium 226 in Brine (pCi/L) 1,280
    Radium 228 in Brine (pCi/L) 703
    Radium 228 in Brine (pCi/L) 1,110
    Total Radium in Brine (pCi/L) 1,654
    Total Radium in Brine (pCi/L) 2,390
    TDS (mg/L) 157,000
    TDS (mg/L) 200,000
    Uranium 238 in Brine (pCi/L) 90
    Benzene 880 ppb

  • Dana Leigh Dolney

    These are some of the families our organization, Friends of the Harmed ( find us online for more information or for ways to help) have been helping for years, to get clean water or air tests and air scrubbers. I can personally attest and would testify in a court of law to the fact that the DEP nor DOH did their job under Corbett. Our organization would have never been to their properties or in their homes if anyone in the state had taken their health and safety concerns seriously. We were all volunteers just trying to help, not paid employees of the state. Sadly, the grassroots organizations and volunteers have been their only real hope to date for help.
    The Headley’s were on the cover of our last book, Shalefield Stories over 2 years ago and the Motens and their neighbors have to still rely on bottled water and a couple of buffaloes and many folks across the state have had to become refugees, walk away from their home and loose everything, to try to protect their families and their health. They have been begging the state for help for 6 years now, and it was only last month that the first DOH person came to Rea. Their pleas always fell on deaf ears and trust me, there are many more out there like those in the story above. These families have beat their heads bloody against the wall of obstruction and neglect at the state and local level. We have done our best as a community of support, but there is so much more that should have and could have been done to protect them, their health and safety. Its a cover up by the state for the industry and a it should be a crime. The people that were in charge should be held accountable. It is also worth mentioning that no local newspapers wanted to cover these stories in earnest and always skewed the tragedies: no one would investigate, just provide contrary industry quotes and never follow up. This story is about 4 years too late. So, Post Gazette, Tribune Review and NPR, why weren’t you covering the stories when it could have really helped these families instead of after the fact when all of the damage has been done and the families have been exposed unnecessarily to this harm for all of these years? Why were there no real in depth investigations. I think advertising dollars and content control are the answers. Hopefully the fact that their complaints have been proven valid now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we will see some real investigations and much more coverage and less coverup. These families are owed that much. If its ok now to go after the state and investigate, why don’t you do the same for the industry that caused the problems in the first place?

    Unlike NPR, This segment was not brought to you by America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

    • Susan Phillips

      Dana, we did report on Rea, Pennsylvania and the health complaints back in 2012. We also reported on several other cases documented here by the Department of Health. We published several investigative pieces on policies at the Department of Health regarding fracking health complaints, which were the inspiration for this Right-to-Know request. Our funding comes from the William Penn Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

      • Dana Leigh Dolney

        Where are the investigative pieces into the harm itself, the industry? What about looking at the wells up in Cross Creek Park that caused all of these problems outside of Rea? Why not ask the local officials why there is no effort to bring city water to the families? Why is there no talk of Range Resources and the wells that continue to torture these families? Why did you not counter when the County Council and Range Resources was using Cross Creek park as the model of how to drill in parks safely if you knew of the issues in Rea? That is my point. Investigating the inadequecies of the state is only one piece of the puzzle. But there is much more to do. One report every three years on an ongoing situation where people live without water in the US is not what I consider solid investigative journalism. For the 3 years in between your reports, they all still lived without water, and there was little to no public pressure for the officials in the area to use the impact money for anything other than improving turkey habitats or trails in the park (true story). Not getting water to the people below, even though the local officials know they have all lost their water since the drilling began. Debunking the “it’s perfectly safe” mantra of the industry is what the people of PA deserve. Food and Water watch did the RTK, they have been working harder than most groups out there to shine a light on the real issues facing people who have been surrounded by Fracking, but they aren’t the media or journalists. If you want credit for that “inspiration”, fine, but I think State Impact can and should do better. My question is, why didn’t State Impact do the RTK if you knew there were problems? If this industry had been properly reported on from the beginning, we would not see many of the problems we see in the field today. And sorry, but most of my news segments on NPR are brought to me by ANGA these days.

  • b_sure

    Between the DEP and the DOH it’s obvious that the people paying their salaries are getting ripped off. I want my money back. I’m tired of these agencies put in place to protect the people, continuously working for the toxic industry that is causing harm to good tax paying citizens. Governor Wolf, are you listening?

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