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Growing body of fracking science provides powerful justification for continued health review in NY

Kate Sinding

Posted March 20, 2014

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Drip by drip, study by study, event by event, we keep getting additional reasons to worry about what fracking could potentially do to damage the environment of New York and the health of New Yorkers.

Last month, for example, I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General launching a review of why EPA shut down its investigations of water-quality problems associated with fracking in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming. I also wrote about a worrisome investigation of air-quality impacts in the heavily fracked region of the Eagle Ford Shale formation in Texas. 

Now, the latest piece of evidence is a story in Capital New York about a newly published study citing “substantial concerns and major uncertainties” that must be addressed before fracking expands across the country. What makes this study especially relevant to the slow, ongoing process in New York is the identity of its author: John Adgate, of the Colorado School of Public Health. He is one of the consultants the state’s Health Department retained to make sure the department’s review is doing a good job of protecting public health. 

In the journal Environmental Science and Technology Adgate and two co-authors laid out the risks of “unconventional natural gas,” or UNG: 

“For communities near development and production sites the major stressors are air pollutants, ground and surface water contamination, truck traffic and noise pollution, accidents and malfunctions, and psychosocial stress associated with community change,” the report said. “Despite broad public concern, no comprehensive population-based studies of the public health effects of UNG operations exist.”

In other words, we know generally what the impacts of fracking can be, but there’s still a lot of detail missing.

One thing we absolutely don’t know is exactly when Health Commissioner Nirav Shah plans to conclude the department’s study of fracking. We certainly don’t want him rushing it. Adgate’s report, plus a critical assessment of fracking by another Health Department consultant, UCLA professor Richard Jackson, offer plenty of reason for caution. But Adgate, Jackson and another consultant are reported to have concluded their work last year. If Dr. Shah and Governor Cuomo can’t give us an exact date for when they hope to finish the study—and it may be unrealistic to expect that they can do that yet—they ought to be more transparent about the general progress of the department’s work. 

It’s in the governor’s political interest—and the interest of New Yorkers who care about their own health and the state’s ecosystems—for him to say something more definitive now about the progress of the study. His likely Republican opponent in this year’s election, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, has begun criticizing him for being indecisive on fracking. We prefer to think the governor is being wise in not rushing to judgment.

This epochal decision has to be rooted firmly in sound science, and we believe the governor takes that same view. So it’s supremely important that he make the case publicly for the deliberate, science-based approach that the state is taking, in preparing for this decision. We hope the governor will take the time very soon to tell us both how far the Health Department’s examination of the science has gone, and the scope of the work that remains to be done. With that simple step, he can make clear that his approach is not political indecisiveness, but scientific wisdom.

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Michael BerndtsonMar 20 2014 04:53 PM

My comment falls under too little too late, but NYS probably should have made public the report in phases of completion. Instead of as one big draft final for public (and/or) industry review. By phases I don't mean in finalized parts, similar to how EDF is releasing its fracking study report(s). By phases of completion I mean: 1) Study preamble, Conceptual Plan, and Basis of Design, 2) Caveat & Assumptions, Methods for Study and Calculations Procedures, 3) Reviewed Data and Analysis, and finally 4) Conclusions. This sounds like the report gets submitted in un- or half- baked intervals. What really happens is there's buyoff by all parties along the way. It takes pretty thick skin by authors to submit a report this way.

The report will probably going under a three pronged attack.

One route of attack will be to just bring up nonsense to control the "conversation." This attack could be by folks that didn't even read the damn thing. Standard political consulting stuff. For example, assuming there are health concerns with fracking, they'll focus on Putin and how Obama is making America lose its mojo.

Another route of attack will be to rip apart assumptions or factors applied to analysis. Health risk assessments have to make assumptions and chose weighting factors to determine risk between an activity and those working and living in the area of concern. Environmental health risk assessments have many assumptions and factors applied.

The third route of attack is the most annoying, but most effective. The format of the report is ripped apart, but the contents ignored. For instance, let's say the authors never updated the table of contents before PDFing and making public. So the sections and pages are misnumbered. A reviewer could turn this rather silly error into an emblem of the quality of the entire report. Then repeat this error over and over again on the blogosphere. Then blame Obama.

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