WILKES-BARRE — The more natural gas wells in an area, the more of its residents end up in the hospital.
So indicate the results of an unreleased study that was revealed at a state Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing at King’s College on Wednesday on the subject of tracking, reporting and acting on public health concerns related to natural gas drilling.
State lawmakers believe there needs to be better collection and sharing of health data in Marcellus Shale drilling areas, and state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, has sponsored a bill that would dedicate $3 million in drilling impact fees to the state Department of Health to conduct the needed research.
However, there needs to be “consistent, constant communication” between the Department of Health and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says does not have the resources and technology to effectively do its job.
DePasquale said there should be a dedicated staff person in each of the two departments — Health and Environmental Protection — to keep in touch with each other.
Wednesday’s hearing, requested by state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, and chaired by state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem Township, included testimony by Trevor M. Penning, professor of pharmacology and director of University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.
Since 2011, the center has had a Marcellus Shale working group to address the public health impact, he said. The center did a study focusing on two counties where natural gas drilling has grown dramatically between 2007 and 2013: Bradford and Susquehanna. Wayne County, where no gas drilling is taking place, was used as a control.
Researchers collected data from seven different insurance providers for the three counties, Penning said. They compared the density of the gas wells with inpatient health records, adjusting for population density.
“Our studies indicate that over time an increasing number of wells is significantly correlated with inpatient rates of hospitalization,” Penning stated.
Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, asked if there was any diagnosis.
Penning said the center is not ready to divulge the conditions yet because the study hasn’t been reviewed, but as soon as it is published, it will be made public.
Yudichak and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Upper Moreland Township, sponsored Senate Bill 790, which would give $3 million in natural gas impact fees to the Department of Health to research whether health services are adequate in drilling areas, including collecting and reporting health data and training health care providers. The bill also calls for researching health effects of air pollutants generated by oil and gas operations.
The bill’s purpose is to push Pennsylvania towards a statewide database of public health information regarding natural gas drilling, Yudichak said.
One of the concerns the center’s researchers have is how it could be affected by the provision of Act 13 that Penning says “puts a gag order on physicians.”
Studies tend to focus on the effects of air pollution from natural gas-related activities rather than water contamination. For one thing, there is a lack of baseline data on water contamination. For another, under Act 13 of 2012, which established the impact fee drillers pay to the state, natural gas companies do not have to disclose what substances are in the fluids they use in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Ruth McDermott-Levy, associate professor and director of the Center for Global and Public Health at the Villanova University College of Nursing, has been researching health needs in communities in Pennsylvania where fracking is taking place and supports Senate Bill 790.
There is a relationship between certain air pollutants and lung cancer and heart disease, she said. The air pollution doesn’t just come from drilling sites, but from support facilities including compressor stations, dehydration stations and truck transport, she said.
Wozniak pointed out that “we don’t know the ‘secret soup”” used in fracking, and wanted to know if there was any way to ask what to look for.
McDermott-Levy said health care providers need to know the chemical composition of the fracking fluids.
“We need disclosure. That’s the bottom line. We’re forced to work in the dark,” she said.
It is important that the state-collected health data is made available to the public as soon as possible, and the Department of Health must develop a health registry that is accessible to the public so they can learn, McDermott-Levy said. The current culture of silence is no benefit to Pennsylvanians and only creates more distrust, she said.
Raina Rippel, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, also said the state needs to focus on getting information out in a timely fashion and regaining the public’s trust.
Right now the community does not know where to turn, and people do not trust the resources they are getting from the state, she said.
“The state of Pennsylvania has lost the trust of a lot of its citizens,” Rippel said.
After the hearing, Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition member Scott Cannon said he considered it a step in the right direction, but is concerned because he believes “$3 million isn’t going to cover much at all.”