The Pennsylvania Department of Health instructed its employees never to talk to residents who complained of negative health effects from fracking, StateImpact Pennsylvania reported Thursday. Two retired employees of the department detailed restrictions on attending meetings, lists of topics they could not discuss, and a general departmental hostility to the idea of health problems linked to shale gas drilling. The state’s governor, Tom Corbett, declined to comment for StateImpact Pennsylvania’s story.
Pennsylvania has had more than 6,000 hydraulic fracturing wells drilled within the last six years, and zero state studies on their health impacts. In Pennsylvania, and near fracking operations across the country, people have won settlements from fossil fuel companies after being sickened. In many cases the drilling company imposes a gag order to prevent sickened people from spreading the word about what caused their illness and building the case that fracking has negative health effects.
In 2011 Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended a registry to collect health data from people living near fracking operations. Three years later, it still doesn’t exist. Across the country in Colorado, legislators tried to commission a study on the health effects of living near drilling, but fossil fuel advocates ensured its demise. Doctors want more data on health effects of fracking, but the interests of the drillers usually win out.
A Texas case where a family was sickened by toxic emissions from gas and oil drilling operations shows why so many families accept a settlement even with a restrictive gag order. The Parrs filed suit against Aruba Petroleum in March 2011, saying they were “under constant, perpetual, and inescapable assault of Defendants’ releases, spills, emissions, and discharges of hazardous gases, chemicals, and industrial/hazardous wastes.” A jury awarded the Parrs $2.9 million, but even after a judge upheld the jury’s verdict this Thursday, Aruba is expected to appeal and drag the case out longer. If it stands, it will be one of the first-ever cases in the U.S. where a drilling company was successfully sued for sickening people.
When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality sent an inspector to look into the Parrs’ case and collect air samples, he was sickened as well. The Texas Attorney General’s office sued, and Aruba ended up settling for $108,000.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health’s hostility to examining the health effects of fracking is just the latest development in a series of policies and laws that make it easier to make money from fracking — at the expense of public health. For instance, a Pennsylvania law makes it illegal for doctors to tell their patients which fracking chemicals are poisoning them, to protect the secret blends they inject into the earth. Drillers like it because they assert it helps them compete against one another. But it also makes it very difficult for residents to build the case for the health effects of a particular chemical, or even the health effects of fracking generally.
As Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D) told Mother Jones in March of last year, “The importance of keeping it as a proprietary secret seems minimal when compared to letting the public know what chemicals they and their children are being exposed to.”