Thursday, September 18, 2014
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A Harrisburg scandal that no one is talking about

Why were Pa. health workers told not to take fracking calls from the public?

A Harrisburg scandal that no one is talking about

Marcellus Shale drilling near Waynesburg. A new severance tax on natural gas extraction that could have raised millions died before gaining traction.
Marcellus Shale drilling near Waynesburg. A new severance tax on natural gas extraction that could have raised millions died before gaining traction. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

OK, let's be honest -- there's a lot of scandals in Pennsylvania state government a lot of the time, so sometimes it's hard to keep up. We still don't know, for example, if anything will ever happen to those state lawmakers who saw nothing wrong with pocketing cash in an envelope from a lobbyist and not reporting it. And then there's all the ones from Vince Fumo to John Perzel to...well, you get the picture -- the ones who got caught and got sent away. Sometimes it's amazing that they still get a quorum in Harrisburg.

Honestly, is there anything worse than public servants getting rich on other people's money? Actually, there may be. What about public servants who are muzzled and prevented from talking to average citizens about potential serious health problems? There have been startling allegations in recent weeks that over the last three years workers in Pennsylvania's Health Department have been hampered into talking with citizens about any issues that may be related to fracking.

These charges have surfaced thanks to some remarkable reporting by Katie Colaneri of the website StateImpact Pennsylvania, a National Public Radio project that covers the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania and related topics. She learned from two retirees from the Health Department that -- a little more than a year into the Corbett administration -- line workers in the agency were given a list of fracking-related buzzwords that they were not to discuss with citizens who called in:

One veteran employee says 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.

Another retired employee, Marshall P. Deasy III, confirmed that.

Deasy, a former program specialist with the Bureau of Epidemiology, said the department also began requiring field staff to get permission to attend any meetings outside the department. This happened, he said, after an agency consultant made comments about drilling at a community meeting.

In the more than 20 years he worked for the department, Deasy said, “community health wasn’t told to be silent on any other topic that I can think of.”

In a follow-up story, the website confirmed the February 2012 email that went to Health Department workers that they were not to return phone calls about “'possible cancer clusters, health concerns related to natural gas drilling, and other types of environmental hazards' from citizens, legislators, health care professionals, or public employees."

What happened next is a matter of debate: Health Department officials insisted they were only trying to make sure that that the agency would "speak with one voice" about natural gas drilling" and that calls were merely forwarded upwards to the agency's Department of Epidemiology. But Colaneri's reporting so far hasn't turned up evidence that those higher-ups actually returned people's calls. In another follow-up, Corbett's office, in a rather perfunctory way, denied involvement in the matter.

The issue shouldn't end there. State lawmakers -- in their oversight capacity -- have an obligation to investigate and, if necessary, hold hearings to learn the genesis of this unusual -- and seemingly counter-productive -- order, how it was implemented and what impact it may have had on Pennsylvanians who believed they, or a loved one, were sickened by fracking.

Pennsylvania, let us not forget, is the same state where lawmakers enacted and Gov. Corbett signed the nation's only physician gag rule -- barring doctors from publicly disclosing what they may have learned about a patient's exposure to fracking chemicals -- within months of this email that seemingly gagged the health department workers. It's also the state with a chief executive, Corbett, who has received more than $2 million, either directly or indirectly, in campaign money from oil and gas executives going back to 2010 -- and has sided with the industry on every major issue.

During these three years, the natural gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale has been met with citizens complaining of headaches, nausea, rashes, and of ailing pets and livestock because they live near fracking rigs. Unconventional drilling has been linked to air pollution, to groundwater contamination, and the dumping of radioactive wastewater. The citizens of Pennsylvania wanted answers, and what they got was silence.

We need to get to the bottom of this.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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