Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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That Harrisburg scandal that no one is talking about just got a lot worse

It was just this time last week that I told you about a Harrisburg scandal -- first reported by the StateImpactPA website -- that was flying under the radar screen. It seems as if Pennsylvania state workers were going out of their way to avoid talking with citizens who had health concerns about the air they were breathing and the water they were drinking.

That Harrisburg scandal that no one is talking about just got a lot worse

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A Marcellus Shale oil drilling site near Latrobe, Pa on Thursday afternoon, September 9, 2010.  (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
A Marcellus Shale oil drilling site near Latrobe, Pa on Thursday afternoon, September 9, 2010. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

It was just this time last week that I told you about a Harrisburg scandal -- first reported by the StateImpactPA website -- that was flying under the radar screen. It seems as if Pennsylvania state workers were going out of their way to avoid talking with citizens who had health concerns about the air they were breathing and the water they were drinking.

The reports said that roughly a year after the aggressively pro-fracking Tom Corbett administration took office, workers with the state Health Department were given a list of "buzzwords" about fracking that kicked calls from the public to another office, where they seemed to mostly disappear down a black hole, and that workers were also barred from attending public meetings about fracking.

Now comes a new bombshell, courtesy of the Associated Press:

PITTSBURGH - A former Pennsylvania health secretary says the state has failed to seriously study the potential health impacts of one of the nation's biggest natural gas drilling booms.

Eli Avila also says the state's current strategy is a disservice to people and to the drilling industry because health officials need to be proactive in protecting the public.

"The lack of any action speaks volumes," said Avila, now the public health commissioner for Orange County, N.Y. "Don't BS the public. Their health comes first."

Avila said he believed senior political advisers did a "disservice" to Gov. Corbett by putting a study of health effects on the back burner three years ago. That has led to a cycle of public fear and confusion, said Avila, who served in the Corbett administration.

I was stunned when I read this Saturday night. This isn't some granola-and-arugula-eating leafy liberal environmentalist type making the allegation. Avila (whom it should be disclosed, has some unrelated baggage that he's carrying around) was the highest ranking health official in the Corbett administration -- and he's saying in essence that the public was "BS"-ed when there was a chance to study whether fracking rigs were making their next-door neighbors ill.

Avila also says that he supports fracking -- but that position and the charge that he's making here are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the health study that was kiboshed by the Corbett administration would have offered fracking a clean bill of health -- but what were they so afraid of? Once again, the cover-up looks worse than the crime.

StateImpactPA tried to ask Corbett directly about the Health Department scandal at a press conference, and could not get a real answer. It's time for some straight talk from Harrisburg.

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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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