The Pennsylvania Attorney General released a bombshell of a report late last month which slammed the Department of Environmental Protection and the state’s Department of Health for not doing enough to protect residents from the health impacts of fracking.
The 243-page report stems from a two-year grand jury investigation. The grand jury listened to testimony from 70 households that had experience with the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, and the details were dramatic and disturbing: Children with chronic nosebleeds, stress, anxiety, headaches, shortness of breath, coughing.
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) helps to address health concerns of residents who live near gas industry infrastructure. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talks with Alison Steele, executive director of EHP on their reaction to the report and recommendations they are making to lessen the public health impacts from fracking.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: The grand jury listened to testimony from 70 households that had experience with the fracking industry in Pennsylvania and the details were dramatic and disturbing: children with nosebleeds at night, headaches and nausea, water that’s turned brown, farm animals dying.
Did what you read in the report square up with what your organization has heard and seen in your work with residents?
Alison Steele: Very much so. We were actually founded as a response to the health concerns related to the fracking boom. A lot of the symptoms that we’ve heard of from people in these frontline communities include difficulty sleeping, stress, anxiety, headaches, sore throat, sinus pain, shortness of breath, coughing. This very much lined up with what we’ve heard to date.
KH: In part of its response to the report, the Department of Environmental Protection said that the report was inaccurate because there were no dates or evidence listed for these anecdotal experiences by residents. But the report details how DEP and especially the Pennsylvania Department of Health ignored reported accidents and health complaints by residents. A nurse testified that she and others were told that if someone called to report a complaint and used any one of 15 to 20 words that described fracking activity, she had to refer them to a supervisor, which she described as sort of being a black hole — nothing was done after that.
Did that surprise you? What was your reaction reading that?
Alison Steele: There’s a lot of sense that these government agencies have not stepped in to help. The impression that I’ve gotten just from hearing the stories of the people we work with is that there’s kind of a lack of hope and certainly a lack of trust in these agencies. So I was personally really not surprised to read that.
KH: The report talks about the work of Dr. Brown, a public health toxicologist, and others from your organization and how they treated the health impacts people were reporting around fracking as a public health outbreak. The grand jury contrasted that with what the state’s Department of Health did, which initially was nothing.
Can you summarize the steps that were taken in terms of identifying specifically air pollution issues and how you advised residents to deal with those issues?
AS: Yes. Dr. David Brown is the public health toxicologist on our team. I believe the real value that he brought to our team that really set us apart as an organization and in our approach here, is treating this issue the same way you would approach a disease outbreak, where you go in and you ask questions and draw conclusions based on what is going to be incomplete information at the time.
In our approach here, we were really able to treat it more as a public health crisis [where] you’re looking more at preventing something rather than dealing with treatment.
We are still learning more every day. But based on the information collected, you can draw conclusions and then test that hypothesis. In doing the health service with the communities and pairing that with air quality monitoring, we were able to see who was experiencing health symptoms and if they were also experiencing higher particulate counts, higher VOC counts — volatile organic compounds, some of which cause irritation to the eyes, nose and lungs, some of which are carcinogenic.
In our approach here, we were really able to treat it more as a public health crisis. Which in a public health crisis, you’re looking more at preventing something rather than dealing with treatment. We want to be able to take this information and in identifying the source, limit the exposure for the people in these communities.
We actually assembled a set of recommendations for when your risk is higher based on wind speed and time of day, when it’s okay to open your windows, when to leave them closed, if you’re living near one of these sites that could be potentially impacting your health.
KH: The report indicates that the state Department of Health under the current Wolf administration is doing more to address fracking health concerns. In 2015, it created a complaint questionnaire and developed a data registry which initially was funded with, I think, one hundred thousand dollars. It doesn’t have a lot of entries, and that they’ve worked with the EPA to collect health complaints.
Do you think this health registry is useful? What do you think of it?
AS: Not a lot of people have used the registry to date. We have spoken with community members who feel that they have reached out to the DOH, that they have used the the DOH registry and really not gotten much of a response. So we do feel that the DOH could have been doing more in the past, but we’re hoping that the grand jury report and bringing these things to light will help to move things along faster. We are looking forward to a productive relationship with the Department of Health moving forward.
KH: In the report, the state Department of Health says that it has not been proven that fracking harms public health, although it does acknowledge some peer reviewed epidemiological studies that show a relationship between fracking activity and some health effects.
But most recently, the department said it will be working on two health studies, one that looks at acute impacts like asthma and birth defects and one that looks at cancer. They’re going to be spending three million dollars over three years and working with a university and looking at health system data.
What do you think about these efforts?
AS: Our team has compiled information on a number of peer reviewed studies that show a connection between shale gas development and a variety of health concerns, including birth impacts, cardiovascular and respiratory issues, neurological issues, and even some on cancer.
“Pennsylvanians are constitutionally guaranteed clean air and clean water and that is absolutely something that the Department of Health needs to be taking seriously.”
To a certain extent, you’re always going to have the opposition saying this shows correlation, not causation. But we are a public health organization. It’s our goal to prevent people from getting sick. When you see this level of correlation, it shows us where to look to better understand how people might be getting sick and what those sources are.
KH: What role do you think [DOH] should have and play In looking at fracking and public health?
AS: The Department of Health has been aware of this issue for several years, and, yes, they have a lot on their plate. There are a lot of other public health issues that are very present at the moment. But Pennsylvanians are constitutionally guaranteed clean air and clean water and that is absolutely something that the Department of Health needs to be taking seriously.
KH: The report makes eight recommendations to make the industry safer and protect people’s health. One is to increase setbacks. The minimum distance and oil or gas well could be rolled from a home is 500 feet right now. The grand jury recommends 2,500 feet and even more from schools or hospitals. In a public statement about the report, you suggested another number.
So what is that number and why? Where does it come from?
AS: These setbacks relate to air pollution. The numbers that we recommended are one kilometer or 3,281 feet for small facilities, and then a larger setback, two kilometers or 6,600 feet, for larger facilities, and also that same distance to protect facilities that might have at risk populations such as day cares, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Those recommendations actually come from a study that we did several years ago. So we’re not saying that there is a safe distance. At the moment, we cannot say that any specific distance is safe. Only that the farther you get, the safer it is. The greater the setback, the greater the public health protection. These are actually the numbers that we recommended to the grand jury when we testified in the hearing.
KH: Another recommendation is to strengthen air pollution regulations by looking at all pollution sources impacting residents. So if there are multiple sources of air pollution, even from different companies, different well pads, they should be considered together instead of regulated separately. Now, the DEP said in its remarks in the report that this is impractical.
What do you think about that recommendation, and also of how air pollution is monitored in areas where there’s fracking?
AS: I think the attorney general had a very good analogy in his press conference when he was talking about this report. If you’re walking down the street, and you pass one person with a cigarette, that might be a little unpleasant, but it’s probably not going to have a significant health impact. But if you’re surrounded by a number of people with cigarettes, that’s a very different story.
“In the entire time we’ve been experiencing this fracking boom in Pennsylvania, whenever there’s an argument as to whether or not it should happen, it always comes back to economics. Very rarely have I heard public health be part of the equation.”
It really is not practical to look at the emissions from one site and not any of the other sources in that airshed. The monitoring that we do in the communities that we’re in is different because we do continuous monitoring over a long period of time — three, six, nine months. The information is reported in increments of 15 minutes. So we get 15 minute averages and that allows us to look at potential peaks in emissions. So if it’s VOCs, if it’s PM-2.5, we can see periods of intermittent peaks that could be significant in causing some of these symptoms that we’re seeing in nearby communities.
When you look at reporting requirements and reporting from a company doing their own monitoring, most of the time when you’re looking at that data, it’s averaged over a day or multiple days. In that case, those peaks disappear and you see the average is below what their maximum output limit is. So they [a company] can easily say, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s below this requirement. We’re fine.’
We recommend not only examining the aggregate emissions for all sources in the airshed, but also reporting them in increments of no greater than 15 minutes.
KH: Now that this report is out and people had a chance to respond to it, what should happen next? What do you think the impact of this report could be?
AS: I think the impact of this report is that it will help to get public health into the conversation, or even central to the conversation. In the entire time we’ve been experiencing this fracking boom in Pennsylvania, whenever there’s an argument as to whether or not it should happen, it always comes back to economics. Very rarely have I heard public health be part of the equation, and that’s what EHP is here to do.
We think this report will really help in refocusing the conversation to make sure that, you know, if we’re gonna do this, how can we do it in a way that does not negatively impact the health of Pennsylvanians?
Alison Steele, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which is funded by The Heinz Endowments and the Park Foundation, which fund The Allegheny Front.