Are employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Health really being told to ignore complaints from citizens who complain they’re being sickened by hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling? If they are, is it criminal?
That’s the question that the state Attorney General’s office will attempt to answer in the coming weeks, as officials contact and interview multiple residents who say they reached out to state health officials about symptoms they think could be related to drilling, and received no response. In an e-mail to the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, seen by ThinkProgress, a special agent from the attorney general’s environmental crime unit confirmed that they would look into residents’ complaints.
“Please forward me the list of PA residents… along with their addresses and phone numbers,” the agent’s e-mail to the group reads. “I will contact them for an interview as schedules permit.”
Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights group focusing on food, water, and fishing issues, had asked Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office to investigate claims that health concerns over drilling were ignored — claims like those of Pam Judy, a resident of Greene County. Judy says her family began getting sick in 2008 after a natural gas compressor station was built 780 feet from their home.
“The first place I contacted seeking information and assistance was the DOH,” she said. “They were unable to direct me to anyone who may be able to help us.”
An influx of similar stories sparked concern that the DOH may have been willfully ignoring the complaints. Those concerns were magnified when two former DOH employees told StateImpact Pennsylvania that they were instructed not to return phone calls from citizens who said they may be experiencing sickness from fracking and other natural gas development.
Attorney General’s office spokesperson Renee George Martin confirmed to ThinkProgress that they had been in communication with Food & Water Watch about launching an investigation into the residents’ complaints, but noted that the communication was not indicative of a formal criminal probe.
“We don’t confirm or deny any ongoing investigation,” she said. “We take every complaint seriously; whether it warrants legal action or not is to be determined.”
But even if it’s not a formal investigation, Food & Water Watch senior organizer Sam Bernhardt said it was a step in the right direction.
“It’s definitely very exciting,” he said. “They don’t promise a formal investigation, but one can infer from the e-mail that they are investigating.”
Both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the DOH have said through spokespeople that they continuously followed the rules when responding to health complaints, and have always made public health a priority. The DOH also recently posted a message on its website in response to media buzz over the issue, asking residents to contact them if they’ve been experiencing health problems.
But if the allegations are true, damage may already have been done. Pennsylvania has had more than 6,000 hydraulic fracturing wells drilled within the last six years, and zero state studies on their health impacts. It’s been increasingly hard to prove that families can be sickened by drilling — in Colorado, legislators tried to commission a study on the health effects, 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.
Meanwhile, natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed, with current Gov. Tom Corbett at the helm. Corbett has expanded gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests, and in 2012 implemented a controversial state oil and gas law — Act 13 — severely restricting the ability of local governments to have control over drilling in their area. Multiple portions of the law have since been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
The expanded drilling has been less than ideal for state drinking water, according to a recent report from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s auditor. That 146-page report saying the DEP had failed to adequately protect Pennsylvania’s drinking water supply from drilling. It also said the DEP routinely waited too long to inform the public about the results of investigations during the height of the fracking expansion.