Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Ex-official: Pa. lax on fracking

Eli Avila, a former health secretary, says the state failed to study potential health effects.

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.

"What are you so afraid that we're going to uncover?" Avila said of industry leaders, adding that it would be better to clearly tell people what is or is not a problem. "It's not that I'm against fracking. I'm sure it's helping many individuals financially."

The gas-drilling industry has said that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe and that there is no evidence of serious health problems from it.

In 2011, an advisory commission recommended the state create a public health registry to track drilling-related complaints and address concerns. The state House approved $2 million for such a registry, but Senate GOP leaders and the governor's office cut the funding at the last minute.

Some people have complained that nearby drilling led to headaches, nosebleeds, and other problems, and there are long-term concerns about the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process, which breaks rock to free gas. But without coordinated statewide research, it is impossible to know how widespread or dangerous the problems are or even if drilling is responsible.

Avila spoke after media outlet State Impact reported that two former Health Department employees said they had been told to forward certain environmental health complaints - including drilling - to the state Bureau of Epidemiology and not to discuss the issues with callers. The memo included other subjects beyond drilling, such as Superfund sites and mining.

Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk wrote in an e-mail "There was not and is not an effort to keep employees from taking Marcellus Shale-related health complaints or from following up on complaints."

Tysarczyk said the department ha responded to all 51 Marcellus Shale health-related complaints it had received, and that "any complaint or investigation is shared directly with the individual involved and his or her physician if the individual has seen a physician."

The database of the complaints contains personal health information and cannot be made public because of medical privacy laws.

Kevin Begos Associated Press
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