Which way shall we go from here?
A few occurrences this month have me thinking, and perhaps some of you as well.
We haven’t really had any Pennsylvania health studies to show us what our changing world around us may mean to our health. Some of these changes may not affect us for many years down the road, if at all, and then some, are more immediate and present challenges. The more immediate challenges we’ve been tracking since 2005 and that is our Region’s asthma rates. They have reflected changes in our environment. You can view that information on our webpage Home/Marcellus Shale/Air Quality/Regional Air Emissions Data .
“Study: Fracking Industry Wells Associated With Premature Birth”
So, we’re always interested when a study comes out, and we’re hopeful we might gain some information. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health issued the “Study: Fracking Industry Wells Associated With Premature Birth; New research suggests increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes closer to active unconventional natural gas wells.”
The Mayo Clinic cites several complications that may occur within the first few weeks of premature birth such as, breathing, heart and brain problems; temperature control problems; gastrointestinal, blood, metabolism, blood and immune system problems. Premature birth can also lead to long term complications such as, Cerebral palsy; impaired cognitive skills; vision, hearing and dental problems; behavioral and psychological problems and chronic health issues. So, when we saw the study headline, we were certainly concerned enough to really take a close look. The last thing we want to see in our Region and unconventional shale gas development area is harm to our future generations.
The report starts out by noting that there were zero producing wells in 2005. We took that as a good sign, as you will note the asthma data we’ve been collecting starts in 2005. We’ve always considered that it is not good enough to review data just during the development era, but we need to look at data pre-development in order to understand where we were, and where we are going. How is this data changing where we live and our health? We started our data in the year 2005. The first spud wells in our region occurred in Bradford, Susquehanna and Tioga Counties during the fall of 2006. And, then it took a while to really ramp up, so we have a year with no activity along with a couple years not so much. So, we have this reference, where we were and where we are going.
Unfortunately, the Bloomberg Study, didn’t go that far. They simply noted no activity in 2005 and then picked up their data in 2009 to commence the study period. So, with the Bloomberg Study, we have no idea at least within their study, of what the premature birth statistics were in 2005, 2006, 2007 or 2008. That’s really disappointing, because this study provides no basis for this is where you were, and this is how it looks now. All we know is this is what the study indicates for the period of January 2009 through 2013.
This is more than a little disappointing. We don’t really understand why they would determine to do a study in this fashion. It really doesn’t provide us any meat for consideration being we don’t know what the premature birth statistics may have been in 2005.
There were some other items we noticed in the study, but frankly the fact that there is no ‘baseline’ here is more than a little troubling. We’re not interested in comparisons to statewide data when perhaps our region may have had either a better outcome or even worse outcome pre-development. What we are truly interested in is what was our experience pre-development and what is it now as that is the only way we can truly gauge how and if the development is seriously affecting something as important as premature births.
Careful consideration is needed to understand why would the researchers omit this data or make this data exclusion choice? Well, it may come down to once again; this study is not so much about families in the Pennsylvania unconventional gas fields as it is about those who are removed from here. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is located in Maryland. Why would Maryland want to study Pennsylvania? Well, Maryland currently has a drilling moratorium. Do you suppose this study is helping to support that moratorium? Perhaps, or maybe not. But certainly it wasn’t done in any fashion to help us here, to know what may be happening to our families.
“Dangerous and Close; Fracking Near Pennsylvania’s Most Vulnerable Residents”
The other day, PennEnvironment issued what appears to be an updated study, “Dangerous and Close; Fracking Near Pennsylvania’s Most Vulnerable Residents.” Again, we wanted to take a close look at this study, because again they are talking about “infants, school children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.” The first item I noticed was some of our schools and hospitals in the heart of the drilling were missing from the map. So, even if there was good information here, part of our region was missing from the calculations.
I like to take a look at the data, how the data is considered and the recommendations. Well, the first recommendation they make is that of a moratorium on additional well pads until the following safeguards are in place: a one-mile setback from well pads and all related infrastructure to schools, daycares, hospitals and nursing homes; ban the use of waste pits and toxic chemicals in fracturing fluids; a higher level of penalties applied to violations occurring near schools, daycares, hospitals and nursing homes; ramp up enforcement and all the federal laws exempting oil and gas activities to be updated to include oil and gas wastes as hazardous wastes. The report includes maps and statistics but no real hard data on what is actually happening to these vulnerable groups within Pennsylvania’s unconventional shale gas development areas. This is really a shame; because that is the kind of information we want to know. That is also the kind of information the General Assembly would need to know in order to take any action on the measures they are advocating.
To their credit, they do review some of the problems that occurred over the past several years but, again, no hard data indicating public health issues. This is what we need, if we are going to say redefine setbacks, we need to show why. That is how the regulatory process works. And while, we have advocated for improving setbacks along with examples, still this public health data is the key to what is needed. We need to know in order to determine what changes if any are appropriate.
The report even went further to single out the poor air quality in Lancaster and Philadelphia Counties pointing out not only the failing grades by the American Lung Association but also, casually linking that to “air pollution related to fracking can travel long distances.” How absurd is this? Really? Those areas have always had challenged air quality. Down-state, beyond the shale families have been benefiting from less emissions not more. Generally, the wind direction (air quality) flows into our region from the south, rarely to the south. And, the rural unconventional development areas, well it is there that the emissions are increasing along with the asthma rates.
While it is interesting to review the maps and statistics in the report, please don’t take them to heart. Some of our institutions and populations are missing from the data as well as interpretations that don’t quite add up.
We can see they really put a lot of work into the report and this is an organization within Pennsylvania, so we were really hoping for some information here. Unfortunately, there is nothing here that will really assist in developing better setbacks. The details are missing.
“The Shale Bargain”
So, now we come to this week. You may have seen that Penn Live is running a shale series, “The Shale Bargain.” This just hit me funny from the get go. There’s been unconventional shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania for about eleven years now and Penn Live is just getting around to doing a series? I think every paper large and small has done one perhaps by five years ago. I recall our own Rocket Courier doing more than a few series on different aspects of the development. Penn Live is really rolling out the articles, but what are they? Pretty much “digging up bones.” We can only imagine what purpose this is serving to perhaps somehow excite down-staters, beyond the shale on charging our landowners severance tax. And that’s a pretty hard pill to swallow when lately, for some of us the post-production/transportation costs have been exceeding the price of gas. It’s even more annoying considering that we still have needs to be met here in the unconventional fields – we need five weather stations, a full network of air monitors, more boots on the ground in the Bureau of Air Quality and we still need a long term air monitoring study near several/variety of producing well pads.
The General Assembly
This week, we now see both the House and Senate with similarly passed bills that would drastically affect the rulemaking process. Of everything that has occurred this month, this is what has us most concerned. The present process works. What may change is more power to special interest groups, like the oil and gas industry to delay or even make more difficult the process to enact regulations – regulations that we need. If you don’t think the present system is already slow and challenging, well consider this. Act 13 of 2012 regulatory changes are part of our current rulemaking that began in 2011, still very slowly moving forward but not yet complete.
Thus far, this has been some month. All I can think of is, which way shall we go from here? Do we continue to accept these studies that essentially don’t provide any real information for us and are not really about us either? Do we question where are the real studies? Do we ask where is the funding for the real studies? Who do we feel confident doing the studies? And, what in the world do we think about the premier newspaper in the state capitol digging up bones? Do we consider they have an agenda all of their own, well it’s apparent, it doesn’t include us. And what about our Assembly Members, providing more consideration for the oil and gas industry than their constituents, families living within the development area, living many times, measurable feet from well pads and other facilities? Are we not deserving of environmental protections?
With any amount of luck, November has got to be better than this.
Emily Krafjack, President