Pennsylvania

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Environmental group accuses AG’s office of inaction in Health Department probe

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Some residents who live near rigs like this say state authorities are not listening to their health concerns.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Some residents who live near rigs like this say state authorities are not listening to their health concerns.

An environmental advocacy group is accusing the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office of failing to conduct a promised investigation into allegations that the state’s Department of Health neglected complaints from people who said their health had been damaged by fracking.

Food & Water Watch said the AG’s office agreed about a year ago to look into the complaints against the health department but said that had not happened, beyond what it called “a few cursory interviews.”

The Washington, D.C.-based group responded to its concerns over the agency’s alleged inaction by filing a right-to-know request with the AG’s office on Wednesday, seeking all its documents related to fracking-related public health concerns.

“The people of Pennsylvania and the people who have been impacted deserve to know who they can go to and who can look out for them,” said Sam Bernhardt, senior Pennsylvania organizer for Food & Water Watch.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, said it did investigate the allegations against the Department of Health during the second half of 2014 following a series of reports from StateImpact Pennsylvania.

However, Ardo said Health Department staff “were not cooperative in providing information” at that time.

“Our environmental crimes unit did pursue this investigation, and interviewed a significant number of the complainants,” he said. “But because the Department of Health under the last administration was not cooperative, it was difficult to determine how they responded.”

Although the probe is being conducted by the AG’s environmental crimes unit, there is no suggestion that any members of the Health Department could be criminally charged, Ardo said.

“We’re not sending agents in to scour through their computers,” he said. “Our investigation was a matter of going over there and talking to people and trying to find out what the heck they were doing about the complaints.”

Ardo said the investigation is continuing, and that he expects the health department under the Wolf administration would be more forthcoming with information. “We are confident the new leadership at the Department of Health will be more responsive” to both the Attorney General’s questions, and to public concerns over fracking and health, he said.

Gov. Wolf has ordered that health concerns over fracking “be taken more seriously,” Ardo said, adding that any public information covered by the right-to-know request will be provided by the AG.

Asked to respond to charges that it had not responded adequately to fracking-related complaints from the public, Health Department spokeswoman Amy Worden said it was “committed to increased collaboration and transparency in evaluating all health concerns.”

Worden said most of the complaints occurred during the Corbett administration, and those received since the Wolf administration took office in January this year are being “actively” investigated.

Worden said she could not comment on the Health Department’s cooperation with the AG’s office under the previous administration but said the department is now committed to cooperating with requests from other state agencies.

In June 2014, StateImpact Pennsylvania reported that Health Department employees had been instructed not to talk to members of the public who called to complain about health issues that they claimed were related to fracking.

Two former Health Department employees said then that they were given lists of “buzzwords” such as “fracking,” “gas” and “contamination” and told that they were not allowed to talk to people who used such terms during their calls.

Following StateImpact Pennsylvania’s investigation, Food & Water Watch reached out to people who had illnesses suspected of being related to fracking, and who had sought advice from the Health Department. In July 2014, the nonprofit submitted a list of 14 affected individuals to the AG’s office with a request that it investigate the Health Department’s handling of the complaints.

The latest request to the AG is based on conversations with people who complained to the DOH, Bernhardt said.

“Food & Water Watch is of course not privy to the communications and actions of the Attorney General’s office, which is what prompted this right-to-know request,” he wrote in an email. “What we do know is in all of our follow-up conversations with the impacted individuals we handed over to the Attorney General’s office, all reported only one conversation with the agent, with little to no follow-up on that conversation.”

In June this year, Food & Water Watch obtained Health Department documents showing its handling of 86 fracking-related cases between 2011 and 2015.

Meanwhile, residents who contacted the Health Department said they support the latest request to the Attorney General’s office.

Audrey Gozdiskowski, a resident of Tunkhannock, Wyoming County, said she contacted the health department three times in 2013 and 2014 to seek advice on health complaints including nausea, burning eyes and a constriction of her throat, all of which she believed were due to poor air quality from three compressor stations near her home.

On one occasion, she said she was told simply to close her windows and turn on an air conditioner – which she doesn’t own.

Gozdiskowski said the Attorney General’s office called her about a year ago in its investigation of complaints against the health department and the official took a lot of information, but she hadn’t heard anything since.

“I’m not happy with either of them,” she told StateImpact Pennsylvania, referring to the Health Department and the Attorney General’s office. “Listening is wonderful, but it’s action that we need.”

Angel Smith, a resident of Clearville, Bedford County, said she called the Department of Health in about 2008 to ask its advice on the health effects of arsenic, which she said had appeared at elevated levels in her water, and which she suspected was related to illness in her cattle.

Smith, who said she lives near 23 natural gas storage wells, said that the only advice she got from the Health Department was that she should tell her neighbors about the arsenic.

“She didn’t tell me to quit drinking the water,” Smith said, referring to the health department worker who took her call.

In August 2014, Smith said she received a phone call from Paul Zimmerer, a member of the AG’s environmental crimes unit, who asked her about her attempts to contact the Health Department. She said she sent him copies of emails and a picture of one of her dead cows that she had discussed with the DOH representative, but he never acknowledged receiving the materials and has not been in touch with Smith since August 27 last year, she said.

“It just feels like when you are dealing with the gas companies,” she said. “You get the runaround, and sometimes you are blown off.”

Zimmerer said he was unable confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.

This story has been updated to include comments from the Department of Health.

 

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