The Pennsylvania Gas Law (Act 13) Fails to Protect Public Health

by Duane Nichols on March 12, 2012

The Public Health Is At Risk in Pennsylvania (and Elsewhere)

[The following is from a Guest Editorial appearing in the Opinion/Perspective Section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, March 11th.  See this site for the full text written by Dr. Bernard Goldstein and Jill Kriesly of the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.]

Imagine a physician caring for a child whose illness might have been caused by long-term exposure to a proprietary fracking chemical while playing near a drill site. Assume that after signing a legally binding nondisclosure agreement, the physician is given the identity of the chemical and comes to believe it caused the illness. What can the physician tell the families of other neighborhood children who play in the same field?

Under the newly enacted law (Act 13 of 2012), copied almost verbatim from a controversial Colorado law, a physician may receive information about a proprietary chemical used in the fracking process, but the physician must agree to not reveal this information to the public. The law also allows the company to keep secret from physicians information about agents that come up from the ground during drilling, such as natural gas constituents — which themselves can be toxic — and naturally occurring toxic agents such as arsenic, barium, brine components and radioactive compounds dissolved in flowback water. Nor can public health authorities begin with knowledge of a secret chemical and ask whether there is an increase in an illness that the chemical is known to cause.

This law would have looked different had public health officials been consulted. Legislators and industry lobbyists seeking streamlined and stable regulations to aid their companies’ planning and pursuit of profits should recognize that it’s in everyone’s best interests to research and prepare for the public health risks that come with drilling. The statistically significant disease clusters that will inevitably arise in communities with Marcellus Shale drilling, whether caused by the drilling or not, will generate fear, media attention, declines in property values and lawsuits.

Industry is liable for any adverse effects caused by the millions of gallons of chemical-laden water that flows back to the surface after each frack. Perhaps individual companies are hoping that their particular mixtures will not cause noticeable harm or that they will make their money before tort liabilities catch up with them. But hydrofracking will likely go on in Pennsylvania for decades, and depending on toxic tort suits to protect the public presupposes that we must wait until people get sick.

The usual engineer’s response to just about every technology problem that has resulted in environmental or human health problems is to say that had they only known there was a potential problem, they could have designed the technology to avoid the problem. For this discussion to take place in the case of the unconventional development of Marcellus Shale gas, we need health professionals at the table to prevent adverse health effects, and we need to put them there now.

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