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Documents show fracking health study is ongoing, group claims

Documents obtained by a group opposed to hydrofracking show the Cuomo administration is conducting a thorough health study on the controversial natural gas drilling process. The Finger Lakes based organization is now wondering why the review has been conducted almost entirely in secret.

Members of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association are wary of hydrofracking and its potential risks. When the New York State Health Department refused to reveal details of a secretive, and now year and a half long study on fracking, they filed a Freedom of Information Law request. The group’s Mary Anne Kowalski says after several months, they’ve received their first batch of documents and have found that health officials are actually doing a pretty thorough job of reviewing numerous studies.

“They certainly have accumulated a wide variety of documents from various, very reputable sources,” Kowalski said. “They’re looking at the right information.”

The review goes beyond even what the group had expected, reviewing studies in scientific journals relating to energy and transportation, as well as epidemiology. Kowalski says she’s puzzled over why the review has not been conducted in public.

“Frankly, I don’t understand why keeping it a secret was necessary in the first place,” Kowalski said.

Until recently, the health review was headed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah. But Dr. Shah has resigned to take a job with California's Kaiser Health Foundation.

Since Shah began the study, at the direction of Cuomo’s environmental agency, the health commissioner’s other achievements were overshadowed by the controversial topic. The health commissioner’s resignation came, coincidentally, on the same day that Cuomo’s opponent for governor, Republican Rob Astorino, called on Shah to leave, citing the lengthy review among other things. Astorino accused Shah of being a political foil for the governor.

“The state health commissioner is doing Gov. Cuomo’s political bidding in delaying a decision through his election,” said Astorino, in a video release.

The Cuomo administration says Shah’s departure had been in the works for a while.

During his tenure, Dr. Shah was close mouthed about the details of the study. In the fall of 2013, he said it would be ready in a number of weeks, but later maintained that there was no time table for completion, and he justified the lack of public disclosure.

“Science needs to be done in a sacred place,” Shah said at the time. “The process needs to be transparent at the end, not during.”

Cuomo, at that same press conference in late 2013, said he did not feel a need to rush.

“I don’t want to put any undo pressure on them that would artificially abbreviate what they are doing,” said Cuomo.

A health department spokesman says the health review will continue under acting Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. In a statement, Bill Schwartz said, “The process will continue until he concludes the review is fully informed, comprehensive and best serves the health and safety interests of the citizens of New York.”

The Seneca Lake Association is awaiting more documents relating to the health review in a second shipment, which could include emails exchanged between scientists at the health department, and correspondence with three outside consultants hired to advise the review.

Kowalski says there is one big unanswered question. She says there’s no indication what conclusions about fracking and public health that the new health commissioner and the Cuomo administration might draw from all of the scientific studies.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.