Editorial: Informed debate needed on fracking's health impacts

Thursday, September 27, 2012
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The hydrofracking debate in New York state so far has generated plenty of heat but little light. Those who have tried to keep an open mind — wary of the industry’s claims that the natural gas extraction process poses little or no danger to the environment or human health, and of opponents’ claims that it will be a disaster on both counts — have waited for some disinterested party to give us solid science with which to judge costs vs. benefits.

Last week’s announcement by state Environmental Commissioner Joseph Martens that the health impacts of shale gas drilling will be reviewed by the state health department, which will consult with “the most qualified outside experts,” gives hope that we will finally get that information.

This is far better than the state Department of Environmental Conservation simply finalizing the draft environmental impact statement and regulations it has been working on, ending the moratorium on drilling imposed by Gov. David Paterson and starting to issue permits. That’s what could have happened, and in fact what many fracking opponents expected, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June announced a plan to allow limited drilling, in communities that want it, outside of the Catskill Park and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Environmentalists claim that the DEC review has given short shrift to health concerns, like possible pollution of water and pollution from increased truck traffic. They’ve called for a review by a university school of public health or other independent group.

Martens and Cuomo say an outside review isn’t necessary, that this is government’s job. In theory, yes: Impartial bureaucrats and agency personnel would do the reviews and write the regs without being influenced by politics or the industries they are supposed to regulate.

But in reality, the influence is often there. Suspicion of it in this case is increased because Bradley Field, head of DEC’s Mineral Resources Division, which would be regulating fracking, appears to be an apologist for the industry and a global warming denier (he signed a petition saying there was “no convincing scientific evidence” that human-caused greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are superheating the Earth’s atmosphere and disrupting its climate). DEC’s initial draft environmental review was pretty weak, and was strengthened only after many negative public comments.

If the health review isn’t going to be done by an independent group, it’s encouraging that DEC is at least involving the Health Department and encouraging it to get expert advice. But that process needs to be transparent, with the public knowing exactly who the experts were, what studies were relied on, and how the bureaucrats came to the conclusions they did.

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September 27, 2012
8:45 a.m.
albright1 says...

Gazette, did you really just call Bradley Field a "global warming denier"? You really need to get some adults to write your opinions.

September 27, 2012
10:13 a.m.
hodgkins.t says...

The Sky is Pink, a great documentary about the hazards of fracking

September 27, 2012
12:15 p.m.
AB says...

A lot depends on who determines which experts are chosen. Consulting with "the most qualified" outside experts might very include only those experts working for industry. The reality is that DEC staffers - who are, in my experience, very honest, dedicated and good at what they do -- are nonetheless under intense political pressure and oversight. I would imagine DOH is subject to the same political influence or the Governor wouldn't agree to this. This study needs to be conducted by an independent group -- drawn from both industry and critics -- to be credible. It would be a service to NY and the rest of the nation to have this done right.

September 27, 2012
9:48 p.m.
biwemple says...

Should have a look at press release yesterday of all the failures NYS DEC has allowed to occur under current regulations.
Title: Review of DEC Mineral Resources Annual Reports Reveals Decades of Improper Gas and Oil Regulation DEC Permitted Billions of Gallons of Untreated Gas and Oil Brine Wastewater to be Dumped Into Pits and Streams Up to Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Needed to Plug and Clean up 4,700+ Abandoned Gas and Oil Wells New Video Documents Massive Drinking Water Contamination and Brine Dumping Incidents In Southern Tier


September 28, 2012
6 p.m.
albright1 says...

BiWemple, I surely believe that the DEC and all NYS and Federal government departments are incompetent. But the cases presented in your link are 1920's and 1930's wells that used water flooding in oil sands roughly 300 to 700 feet below the surface. This has little to do with hydraulic fracturing at 8000 to 10000 ft in shale in the modern era.

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