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Over a dozen groups join NRDC in calling on NYS to open fracking health review to public input

Kate Sinding

Posted December 18, 2012

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Earlier today, NRDC, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and a dozen other national and statewide groups sent a letter to the Cuomo Administration calling on it to open the on-going review of the potential health risks of proposed new fracking to public review and comment.

A brief bit of history may help put things in perspective.

In September – following months of advocacy by NRDC and other members of the environmental and medical communities – the Cuomo Administration agreed to conduct an evaluation of the health risks posed by fracking. Although agreeing to do less than the formal, independent, comprehensive health impact assessment that we requested, we remained hopeful the state would nonetheless commit to evaluating the health impacts in a robust, unbiased and transparent manner.

Ultimately, we hoped this process would produce a first-of-its-kind statewide evaluation of fracking’s potential risks to the people of New York, one that would in turn meaningfully inform the state’s ongoing consideration as to whether to move forward with new fracking.

Last month, in a further promising sign, the Department of Health named a panel of three highly qualified public health experts to assist in its consideration of fracking’s health risks.

Unfortunately, more recently, things have taken a decidedly less encouraging turn. Since its announcement, the health review has been shrouded in secrecy, with the public denied access to any of the materials being reviewed by the agencies and its experts, or even to the details of the process itself. Nor has the public or other key stakeholders, including state and local health professionals, been given any opportunity to submit their own comments and concerns associated with the health risks associated with potential fracking in New York State for the experts’ review.

In one particularly troubling sign, it was revealed that the experts were only contracted to perform a maximum of 25 hours of review – a startlingly paltry allotment given that some health impact experts have estimated that it would take at least a year to properly and fully evaluate the potential risks in New York.

Further, as I have previously blogged, despite having just initiated the health review process, the Department of Environmental Conservation rushed out revised proposed rules for fracking in the state – before either the outside review of health impacts or the ongoing environmental review – has been completed. Whether intended or not, this signaled that – contrary to the Governor’s repeated assurances that no decisions on fracking would be made before the science was fully developed – the state had already decided that, and how, fracking would proceed.

In an effort to get things on track before a unique opportunity is squandered and irretrievable mistakes made, our fourteen groups wrote today to the commissioners of health and the environment to call on them to take three immediate steps to ensure that the health review is legitimate and meaningful:

  1. Publicly release the scope, substance, and any supporting data or information used to complete the “health impact analysis” conducted by DEC and reviewed by DOH, as well as the scope and substance of the outside experts’ evaluations of that review.
  2. Provide a minimum sixty-day public comment period on the scope and substance of the health review.
  3. Hold one or more public hearings throughout the potentially affected parts of the state to receive testimony from interested parties.

We further called on the Administration to reiterate its commitment not to make any final decisions related to fracking until this public health review process has been completed and due consideration has been given to the information elicited during that process

Now you can add your voice. Tell Governor Cuomo to give New Yorkers a chance to consider the health review and to participate in the decision-making over whether – after full consideration of the risks – fracking moves forward in the state.

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Environmental EngineerDec 19 2012 10:38 AM

I see no benefit to having public input or a putlic comment period as part of this fact-finding process. I accept that there should be input from advocates in the policy-making process, but that's not what is involved in a risk assessment. As former NY Senator Moynihan is quoted as saying, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not his own facts.": In NRDC's letter to the commissioners, I note considerable praise for the qualifications of the three individuals selected to perform the assessment. What technical information could they gain from advocates? If these professionals need input on how to gather information and conduct a risk assessment, they should not have been appointed. Hopefully, the result of the assessment will be a sifting of fact from fiction and exaggeration from all the various factions. There's plenty of B.S. going around already. No need to just add to the pile.

Michael BerndtsonDec 19 2012 03:30 PM

Sorry Environmental Engineer, but I seriously doubt you've worked much on regulated projects under anything like CERCLA, RCRA, CWA or any federal act for that matter. Not to mention any state or municipality driven ones. Project development including impact studies, characterization, investigation, feasibility, conceptual design, record of decision and capital appropriation requires some level of public comment period(s) before moving into the development phase (construction) and operations. The process works. Cumbersome? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Goofy and out of hand? Some times, but not usually. A qualified environmental engineer can handle it, whether leading a public meeting or preparing presentation and documentation for whomever. That's the purpose of environmental engineering: to plan, design, construct and operate an environmental project for the public good and project owner. Even I figured this out long ago - as a Chemical Engineer.

The issue at hand is deliberate circumvention of the environmental protection process at the Federal level. And a putsch by politicians and industry at the State levels, i.e. Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and others. New York is simply requesting the normal (or old normal) development process.

And most important - what's a public comment - without the public? Most people are smart enough to figure out environmental policy and how it affects their lives. Their input matters.

Environmental EngineerDec 19 2012 07:50 PM

Mr. Berndtson, I specifically stated that public participation in the policy-making process was not the subject of my comment, only the fact-finding part. Advocacy groups are not in the business of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Nor are the representatives of groups like NRDC immune from factual errors, intentional or accidental, in their writing here or to a fact-finding commission. The commission of professionals has no need for information provided by biased or poorly informed advocates. As an example, how many readers here think methane is a toxic gas, as stated by Amy Mall in her December 3 blog here? As a chemical engineer, you probably know that it is not, but few attorneys would.

You also have a greater faith in the public's numeracy and scientific literacy than I do. Most members of the public do not have the time, background, or inclination to delve deeply into critical technical details, or to back-track from scary sounding (or grossly optimistic) newspaper headline, through marginally academic puff pieces, to actual source documents. And I again stress that this applies to advocates on all sides of the issues, not just NRDC. Suggested reading is James Glassman's Washington Post article titled "Dihydrogen Monoxide: Unrecognized Killer" I Googled it and a copy is still available on the Orlando Sentinal web site.

Amy MallDec 20 2012 09:42 AM

Dear Environmental Engineer: NRDC is absolutely focused on facts, and if you think we got something wrong then we want to know. You correctly point out a drafting error in one of my blog posts--including methane in a list of toxic air pollutants. It was not meant to mischaracterize methane (although of course it is still dangerous and brings the risk of dangerous explosion). Thanks for catching that; I will correct it.

Environmental EngineerDec 20 2012 10:08 AM

Dear Ms. Mall,
Your correction is noted and appreciated. It is a common misconception that I have heard many times.

Thank you for correcting rather than attacking the messenger.

Environmental Engineer, Ph.D., P.E.

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