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Health concerns inspire call for registry

As the number of natural gas wells expands across Pa., the state’s Department of Health still has no system to track possible health impacts of unconventional hydraulic fracturing.

Health concerns inspire call for registry

By James Hynes

As the number of natural gas wells expands across Pa., the state’s Department of Health still has no system to track possible health impacts of unconventional hydraulic fracturing.

Horizontal fracking, as it is called, entails drilling deep horizontal wells and injecting large amounts of high-pressure water to re-fracture ancient fissures in the Marcellus and Utica Shales. This technology allows drillers to extract an unprecedented volume of methane from otherwise difficult formations.

But it is a relatively new and untested method.

Unlike vertical fracking, which takes place in shallow conventional wells, horizontal fracking requires the use of “slicking” chemicals to reduce water friction in steel pipes that are inserted into the bores. Added to this is a host of gelling chemicals to increase viscosity of the fracking fluid, oxidizers and enzyme breakers to aid flowback, and proppants (such as silica sand or ceramic) to prop open fractures.

Much of the water flows back to the wellhead, bringing with it fracking chemicals as well as potentially radioactive brine drawn from the shale.

In his 2011 testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, Michael Krancer, former secretary of the state‘s Department of Environmental Protection, said that state regulations are strong, and fracking poses no threat to water supplies.

“There has been a misconception that hydraulic fracturing of wells can and has caused contamination of water wells,” he said. “This is false.”

Some environmental organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, however, are concerned with the incoherent and unsystematic methods of collecting water-quality data, the lack of baseline numbers to compare pre- and post-drilling levels of contaminants and regulatory weaknesses.

According to a Sierra Club statement, “Natural gas drillers exploit government loopholes, ignore decades-old environmental protections, and disregard the health of entire communities.”

Of particular concern is the possibility of methane migration through leaking pipes or wellheads, methane release into the air and the increased risk of accidents as the Marcellus Shale region becomes a “play” of 50,000-100,000 wells.

Last year, Governor Corbett appointed a Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in order to promote “the safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible development of the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional natural gas reserves.”

The commission proposed collecting and analyzing clinical data from regional healthcare providers to monitor possible fracking-related health complaints.

The governor had initially proposed allocating an annual $2 million to the Department of Health. A portion of these funds was to go toward establishing and maintaining a registry.

This spring, however, the Corbett administration cut the appropriations from the final draft of the bill.

While State Senator Joseph Scarnati (R-25) recently called for a Shale Advisory Panel to implement the recommendations of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, the bill does not call for registry funding.

However, State Senator John Yudichak (D-14), a co-sponsor of Scarnati’s panel bill, has proposed his own bill, Pa. Senate Bill 1519, that would recommit money to the registry.

Senator Yudichak says that he and Senator Scarnati are “looking to marry the two approaches—to establish the Advisory Panel with an annual appropriation of $2 million.”

However, his proposal must wait until the Senate’s next session for action.

Meanwhile, officials at the Department of Health say that they are looking at partnership options.

“We are currently exploring opportunities for public/private partnerships for a registry,” said department spokesperson, Kait Gillis, “as well as whether we can achieve the same goals through enhanced utilization of our existing environmental health tracking tools.”

One opportunity the Department of Health has explored is to help the Geisinger and Guthrie Health Systems in their joint effort to create a database.

According to a Guthrie press release, David Carey, director of Geisinger’s Weis Center for Research, said the planned registry will “utilize their electronic health records to investigate the health effects of Marcellus Shale gas drilling.”

This will be a systematic one-to-fifteen year longitudinal study “look[ing] at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of Geisinger and Guthrie patients who live near the Marcellus Shale formation,” Carey added.

In these regions, energy companies have already drilled about 5,000 gas wells.

Geisinger and Guthrie’s study will investigate possible links between natural gas drilling and illnesses such as asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Preliminary results of data analysis may be released within the next year, Carey said, while other aspects of the research will unfold over five, ten or fifteen years.

According to spokesperson Amanda O’Rourke, Geisinger and Guthrie “have records going back ten years, so we can see data from before industrial activity and after—and we can compare.”

“We especially want to make it clear,” added O’Rourke, “that we are not entering this with any preconceptions” about whether fracking is causing health problems.

In a letter to Geisinger Health Systems, Eli Avila, former Director of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, offered to “participate in the collaboration by providing certain controlled access to its warehouse of regional health data for central and northeast PA.”

“The Department’s scientists and epidemiologist will assist in developing and executing the program,” he added.

Geisinger and Guthrie are seeking $2 million in grants from governments, private charities and the natural gas industry to fund the project.

So far, they have received $100,000 from the Degenstein Foundation, based in Sunbury, Pa.

According to State Senator Yudichak, the Geisinger-Guthrie registry has promise, but it should not replace a Department of Health registry.

“Geisinger is a great corporate healthcare service, and we welcome them as partners on this endeavor,” he said. “But this has to be clear. We need a state-funded public registry...so that we can have confidence that the [natural gas] industry is doing this safely.”

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