Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Some states erring on the side of (pre)caution in the fracking debate

Innocent until proven guilty is a great principle for protecting an individual from wrongful conviction. When the issue is protecting the public from harmful toxins and irresponsible corporations, however, the precautionary principle is better.

Some states erring on the side of (pre)caution in the fracking debate

A Marcellus Shale gas drilling site near Latrobe, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
A Marcellus Shale gas drilling site near Latrobe, Pa. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

By Jonathan Purtle

Innocent until proven guilty — it’s a great principle for creating a criminal justice system that protects individuals from wrongful conviction and a tyrannical state, but not the best principle for creating a regulatory system that to protect the public from harmful toxins and irresponsible corporations.  The precautionary principle is better suited to achieve these ends, and while not always embraced in the U.S., some states seem to be paying attention as they weigh the potential economic gains of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) against its potential consequences for the environment, animals and human health.

The precautionary principle, as formally articulated at the Wingspread Conference in 1998, states that: “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”  In other words, the burden of proof lies on entities to prove that their activities are not harmful to public health or the environment. Until then, government is expected to exercise precautionary measures and regulate the activities as if they were in fact. 

Debates about the regulation, or all out banning, of fracking practices have largely centered on the state of scientific evidence proving a direct and causal relationship between fracking and adverse consequences for the environment and human health.  Ecological systems are extremely complex, and proving such causation beyond a reasonable doubt is difficult – as it is for any number of relationships in the real world, which is far tricker to study than in a strictly controlled laboratory setting. While evidence of water contamination (in Wyoming and Pennsylvania and in humans and animals) and earthquakes (in Ohio and other states) is abundant, it hasn’t been enough to prompt most state officials, including Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, to take strong regulatory action.    

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On Monday, however, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill that would prevent toxic hydraulic fracturing wastewater from entering the state; it now awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. New Jersey lacks the underground reservoirs of natural gas that are abundant in parts of Pennsylvania and New York, and  so isn’t faced with the same conundrum of weighing the potential economic benefits of natural gas extraction against the environmental and public health risks. The New Jersey bill serves as a preventive measure to ensure that the state doesn’t become a haven for the processing and storage of fracking waste produced in neighboring states.

In California, a Senate bill would ban fracking in the state.  According to Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, who sponsored the legislation, the proposal serves to “to make sure our people are safe."

New York, which has pockets of natural gas in portions of the state, has been abiding by the precautionary principle since 2010 when it placed a moratorium on fracking until the risks were better understood and appropriate regulations were putin place. Today, however, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering lifting the state’s fracking moratorium and throwing caution to the wind.

We hope that he doesn’t do this — and continues to err on the side of (pre)caution.


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About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, MPH Doctoral candidate and Research Associate, Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, Drexel University
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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