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Health impact study on fracking raises questions

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s environmental commissioner announcement that he is rejecting calls for an independent health analysis of hydrofracking has left more questions than answers. Commissioner Joe Martens says he will conduct an internal health review instead.Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens caused a stir among pro- and anti-fracking groups when he issued a statement saying that he was rejecting calls for an independent health analysis of the potential impacts of the gas drilling process known as hydrofracking.  The commissioner says there is too much danger of bias and that independent analysts may have their own conflicts of interest.

Martens, in a lengthy written statement, says he instead will ask Cuomo’s health commissioner to  review a health impact analysis that the environmental agency has already completed.  The announcement is the first time that the department has acknowledged that it has conducted a health impact study. In the past, Martens has said he did not think one was necessary.

Katherine Nadeau is with Environmental Advocates, a group that has been calling for an independent health analysis before a decision is made on whether to allow fracking in New York.  Her group and others are concerned that the gas drilling process could contaminate drinking water and cause air pollution.  Nadeau, who was one of several environmentalists to meet privately with Martens at the end of August, says it is the first she has heard that the DEC conducted a health study.

“This isn’t something the public has seen,” said Nadeau. “One of the first questions that comes to [mind is], where did this study come from, and what sort of process is the Department of Health going to be using to assess what has been done?”

Marten’s written statement says that the governor’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, will be permitted to choose outside experts to help him with his review.  A phone call to the Department of Health went unanswered. A spokeswoman for the DEC said no one would be available to answer questions about Martens’ statement.

Environmental Advocates has sent a Freedom of Information request asking to see the health impact study conducted by the DEC.

The new health review means that fracking in New York, if it is to be permitted,  will be delayed for at least another couple of months.

Nadeau, with Environmental Advocates, says she believes it is a good sign, though, that Cuomo is not rushing.
Earlier in the year, Cuomo hinted that fracking could begin by the end of this year on a limited basis in communities that want gas drilling. But in recent weeks he’s been saying there is no timetable.

“I didn’t want an artificial deadline,” said Cuomo, who also said he told the DEC, “when you have completed an intelligent, thorough process, then you should announce your decision.”

While Cuomo says it is okay to proceed cautiously, some landowners with gas drilling leases are growing impatient for fracking to begin.

Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowner Coalition of New York, says his group of 77,000 landowners is happy that the Cuomo administration rejected demands from what he calls “special interests” to conduct an independent health review. But he says the regulatory process has been going on for four years now.

“It is just another delay,” said Fitzsimmons. “We’ve seen a lot of them.” But Fitzsimmons says an independent health review could have taken another  two to four years.  

The Independent Oil and Gas Association issued a brief statement supporting Martens decision not to allow an independent health assessment, saying it is the environmental agency’s job to assess and promulgate all regulations for fracking.

Martens, in his statement, agrees, saying it is his department’s responsibility to assess the health risks. Martens adds that he wants the department to have conducted the “most legally defensible review”,  to avoid “protracted litigation.”

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.