Prove your humanity

A week before the Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh dropped out of a forum on a pair of public health studies focused on fracking, a local state legislator sent a letter to the health department urging the department not to attend. 

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Washington County Republican, objected to the participation of two groups at the forum: the Center for Coalfield Justice and the Environmental Health Project. 

The forum, which took place on Oct. 5, was to inform the public on the status of the studies–one into the relationship between fracking and childhood cancers and the other into its relationship with health impacts like poor birth outcomes and asthma. The studies were organized in 2019 after pressure from Washington County families who had lost loved ones to rare cancers.  

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Bartolotta objected to the department’s participation because the two advocacy groups were registering attendees and screening audience questions at the forum, held at a park pavilion in Canonsburg. 

In the letter, dated Sept. 21, Bartolotta called CCJ “adamantly opposed to fossil fuel development” and said the EHP had a record of efforts to “oppose natural gas development.” 

“I am writing to inquire why the Department has chosen to align itself with anti-fossil fuel advocates as part of its outreach efforts on what is supposed to be an unbiased, fact-based scientific undertaking,” the letter said. Bartolotta wrote that sending department representatives to the forum would “[call] into question the process being employed to conduct important public health studies and, ultimately, the legitimacy of their conclusions.”

University of Pittsburgh and DOH respond

When asked whether the letter caused University of Pittsburgh researchers to withdraw from the forum, a statement from the University said only that data from the studies it’s conducting are not yet public. 

As the meeting date approached and plans were solidified, it became apparent that it would be premature to participate in a public forum regarding this research, which recently closed to recruitment and entered the data analysis phase,” the statement said.  

The Department of Health said the letter had “nothing to do with” its decision to withdraw. A statement from an agency spokesperson said the department pulled out only after Pitt did. “[B]ecause the primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss the study methodology and processes which are being conducted by Pitt, the department would be unable to provide anything more than background information and an overview of what led to contracting for these two studies,” the statement said. “[T]he Department was not involved in Pitt’s decision-making to withdraw from the meeting.”

Center for Coalfield Justice is ‘disappointed’

On its website, the Center for Coalfield Justice states that its mission is: “To improve policy and regulations for the oversight of fossil fuel extraction and use; to educate, empower and organize coalfield residents; and to protect public and environmental health.” Of fracking and the resultant petrochemical development, the group’s website states: “[T]hese operations are extracting the resources and wealth from our communities and putting our health at risk.”

CCJ was one of the groups that worked with the families to pressure the state government to fund the two studies

Veronica Coptis, the group’s executive director, said in a statement the group’s mission “is to help community members advocate for themselves and protect their health and homes from pollution, which our state is failing to do. It is not shocking to see a legislator who has received campaign donations time and time again from the fossil fuel industry to feel threatened by this. But it is disappointing.”

Bartolotta, as the state senator in Washington County, the most heavily fracked county in the state, has championed natural gas development since first gaining her seat in 2014. She has received thousands in donations from oil and gas companies, according to a database of state campaign donations compiled by the website MarcellusMoney.org. 

As co-chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Oil and Gas Caucus, Bartolotta has criticized Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for pursuing a severance tax on natural gas drilling and supporting a fracking ban in the Delaware River basin, the drinking source for 15 million people. The ban, she recently wrote, was “depriving thousands of homeowners the right to their own property.” 

Bartolotta did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

EHP ‘advances best available science’

In a written response to the letter, EHP executive director Alison Steele said the group “does not try to prevent the shale gas industry from operating, as the senator seems to believe. In fact, EHP has never called for a ban or moratorium on the shale gas industry.” 

Instead, Steele said the group advocates “for public health protections in the face of an industry that is underregulated and that emits toxic chemicals into the environment at levels concerning to researchers and residents alike.” 

Steele said the group agreed to participate in the Canonsburg meeting “precisely because of our reputation as a science-based organization that provides factual information to communities and does not engage in community organizing or lobbying.”

Bartolotta’s letter stated EHP has “advanced” fracking studies that “have lacked any scientific rigor, have been misleading in their conclusions, and can only be described as activist pieces under the guise of science,” though the letter does not specify which studies.  

In response, Steele said her group “advances only the best available science, which includes a rapidly growing body of evidence—now more than 30 peer-reviewed epidemiological studies—that shows correlations between shale gas development and public health harms.”

The studies were prompted after dozens of children and young adults were diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 4,000 wells since 2008, according to state records. The cases were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

A state study found there was no cancer cluster in Washington County, but that study did not include several newer cases of Ewing sarcoma.

Disclosure: Both CCJ and EHP organizations receive funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.