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New York to Review Health Impact of Fracking

In a surprise announcement, the Commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), stated that a review of the possible health impacts of hydrofracking will be conducted in-house by the state’s Department of Health under Commissioner Nirav Shah, with input from outside experts whom Shah will select. (See our previous coverage.)

Joe Martens thus denied requests from many environmentalists, physicians, public health experts, and community groups to have the review conducted by an outside, independent, non-governmental entity.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s office said on September 24  that Governor Cuomo fully supports Martens’ decision and there is no timetable on a newly added layer to the state’s review of hydraulic fracturing.

Martens said, “I have recently met with several of the groups who have raised public health concerns and it is clear they are not satisfied with the Department’s effort to address potential public health impacts.”

He added, “…. deferring to an outside group or entity would be an inappropriate delegation of a governmental responsibility. Government is the public’s independent reviewer: that is the essence of the current process. To suggest private interests or academic experts bring more independence to the process than government is exactly wrong.  Many experts in this field have an opinion – pro or con- which could influence the process. Nor could one ever be sure that there weren’t potential conflicts of interest with outside consultants if they were to actually direct the outcome. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure objectivity and a review directed by DEC and the Department of Health is without bias.”

Observers say that the in-house approach will probably take more time than originally planned for the review. But until the DEC completes the review and the science is clear, the DEC and the Governor will not finalize any hydrofracking rules.

In a statement responding to Martens’ decision, Katherine Nadeau, Water & Natural Resources Program Director for Environmental Advocates of New York, a group that called for an outside review, said:

“We are disappointed that Governor Cuomo has rejected requests for an independent assessment on the public health impacts of fracking, ignoring the state’s health professionals, including the New York State Nurses Association and the Medical Society of the State of New York. It would be reckless for the administration to finalize and release the governor’s plans for fracking before his Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) internal health study is reviewed and vetted by the public. There are too many unanswered questions….”

The latest research on hydrofracking from Carnegie Mellon University and Argonne National Laboratory, suggests that “if properly extracted and distributed, the impact of natural gas on the climate is significantly less than that of coal.” This research is cited by  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a May 2012 Washington Post editorial arguing that “Safely fracking natural gas can mean healthier communities, a cleaner environment and a reliable domestic energy supply right now. ”

In June 2012, however, some Cornell University researchers concluded that natural gas from fracking could actually be much worse for climate change than burning coal. Other researchers disputed this claim. As a result of conflicting research, Cornell, whose Ithaca campus happens to be located by the Marcellus Shale area being considered for drilling, has delayed any fracking on its land pending further research.

Last year, the state released a revised draft report on the environmental effects of hydrofracking. By ordering a review of the health impacts,  Martens said, the state will have “the most legally defensible” environmental report in the event of any lawsuits, which are expected no matter which way the state decides to go.

Joyce Newman
Joyce Newman
Joyce H. Newman is an Emmy Award-winning environmental journalist, educator, and gardener. She holds a Certificate in Horticulture from The New York Botanical Garden, and is a tour guide there.
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