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Progress slow on fracking health review

Hydrofracking could once again be delayed in New York, unless the state Health Commissioner is able to complete requirements to contract with outside health experts and conduct a health review by November 29.

The New York State Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, was assigned the task in September of compiling a panel of health experts to review data on the health effects of fracking.  Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens had decided the additional review was necessary before any decisions on whether to allow fracking in New York state could proceed.

But the state is facing a November 29 deadline on what is called a rule-making process that would spell out the new regulations for drillers. If all of the environmental department’s work is not completed by that date, then the rule making process would have to start all over again. It could possibly include more public hearings, and add several more months if not years to a review process that has been going on since 2008.

Now, with just over two weeks to go until the deadline, a state Health Department spokesman confirms that the outside experts required for the health review have not yet been hired, and the agreement involving the scope of their work, and any fees they will be paid, has not yet been worked out.

Spokesman Bill Schwartz says he cannot speculate on whether the health review will be completed or will even begin in the next two weeks.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation could not immediately say whether the November 29 deadline would be met.  

Members of a growing group of local government leaders who are opposed to fracking say they have a lot of unanswered questions about the new health review. Martha Robertson Chairs the Tompkins County Legislature, which includes the city of Ithaca, is one of them.

“We’d very much like to know what it is actually that Commissioner Martens has asked the Health Department to review,” Robertson said. “That has not been made public.”

Neither the environmental or health agencies have said where the health impact data comes from. It was not part of the original environmental review that is still being finalized.  

The local officials met privately for nearly two hours with Martens. They say the DEC commissioner listened to their concerns, but no decisions were made.

Before the meeting, Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan said he does not believe, no matter how many reviews are conducted, that the controversial gas drilling procedure should ever happen in New York.

“Quite frankly I don’t think we’ll ever be ready for this industry and we should go in a different direction,” said Ryan, who said clean, alternative energies should be pursued instead.

But before any of that can happen, the health review, as well as the environmental impact review on fracking, will need to be completed, and that may not happen until well after the New Year. 

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.