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Few details forthcoming on fracking health review

Matt Ryan
NY Now
Anti-fracking protesters from Frack Action attend the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee's budget hearing on Monday, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah answered questions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner was questioned by lawmakers at a recent budget hearing about his ongoing review of health effects related to hydrofracking, but Dr. Nirav Shah provided few details.

State lawmakers peppered Shah with questions about the ongoing health review on hydrofracking, which critics say has proceeded in near secrecy.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, asked Shah what he’s been doing since the review was announced a year and a half ago.

“Can you describe how that process has been going on in your office?” Rosenthal asked. “How many people are assigned to it? What is the scope of their investigation?”

Credit Matt Ryan / NY Now
NY Now
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, speaks with reporters after testifying before a legislative budget hearing.

Shah answered that he’s been looking at hundreds of studies, is starting to put together an understanding of the health impact of fracking, and if there is an impact, figuring out how to mitigate it.

The health commissioner did not offer a definitive number of how many health department staff are involved in the review. He says it varies between several dozen and half a dozen employees. The health department contracted with three outside scientific experts to assist in the review. There’s been no update on their status.

Shah says he’s not ready to publicly share a progress report with New Yorkers.

“When there is a tipping point of data that can point you one way or another, my report will be ready,” Shah said. “As of today, there is not a tipping point.”

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe, of the Hudson Valley, told Shah that holding a public forum on the ongoing review would give the community more confidence in the process.

“That has more transparency in terms of the public providing their responses, experts in the field, scientists, physicians,” Jaffe said.

The health commissioner, who in the past has said that the science "needs to be done in a sacred place" in order to preserve objectivity, says it would not be productive to make his work public now. He says it would just add to confusion and distract from the ongoing work.

Afterward, Rosenthal said she’s frustrated by the lack of details.  

“The reason I asked him the questions is because a lot of people want to know the status of the report,” Rosenthal said. “What are they studying?  Who’s studying it? There’s a cloak of darkness around the entire health study.”

Anti-fracking activists, who attended the hearing, say they are encouraged by Shah’s remarks. John Armstrong, with Frack Action, says if the health commissioner is really looking at hundreds of studies, he can eventually reach only one conclusion.

“We’re confident that if you look at all of those hundreds of studies, you can come to no other conclusion than that fracking must not go forward in New York state,” Armstrong said. “Because it would impact our health.”

Supporters of natural gas drilling say the health commissioner is stalling at the request of Cuomo for political reasons, but Shah denies that.

“I don’t see myself as delaying the study,” said Shah. “I see myself as conducting the review in real time.”

Shah says once he is finished with the review, everyone will be able to see it and judge his conclusions.

Cuomo, who’s facing reelection in November, has said Shah’s health review may not be finished before then.

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.