It’s the type of drama only conspiracy theorists love. Two months after an NPR State Impact report found that Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) officials were told to keep their mouths shut about residents’ questions regarding Marcellus Shale drilling, also known as fracking, a group of some 400 health professionals are now calling for an investigation.
Nurses, doctors, and other health professionals said in a statement, which included 405 signatures, that the Department’s attempts to avoid citizen complaints regarding fracking may have compromised its ability to accurately monitor and respond to health problems “related to our state’s unconventional gas industry.” Speaking at a news conference in the state’s Capitol on Tuesday, Julie Becker, a professor at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, said that “the role of the Pennsylvania Department of Health is to ‘prevent injury and disease,’ and to ‘lead the development of sound health policy and planning.’ Yet, when it comes to fracking, the DOH has done little to prevent exposure or lead policy development.”
In NPR’s report, two retired DOH officials claimed that higher-ups told other employees not to return citizen phone calls regarding health concerns about fracking. “We were absolutely not allowed to talk to them,” Tammi Stuck, a former community health nurse of 36 years, told NPR. Her and the other retiree, Marshal P. Deasy III, said that the DOH employees were given a list of about 15 to 20 “buzzwords,” including fracking, gas, and soil contamination. Whereas Stuck would normally explain what services the DOH could offer for callers’ concerns, anyone who mentioned buzzwords words in were asked to provide their name and phone number — a supervisor was supposed to call them back later, but whether they did was unknown. Meanwhile, DOH officials have denied these claims.
State officials responded to the group’s request for an investigation by saying that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was not looking to audit the DOH, NPR reported. However, the Auditor General’s office would continue to “monitor what goes on,” DePasquale’s spokeswoman Susan Woods said. A spokesman for the state’s Attorney General also said that he could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.” State officials did mention, however, that upgrades to the DOH’s website and written-letter policy would be able to assuage concerns. Along with welcoming those improvements, the health group asked for the release of about 57 drilling-related complaints the Department had received.
Since 2008, there have been over 6,000 well drilled into the Marcellus Shale, putting Pennsylvania at the forefront of America’s natural gas production. With so many companies looking to drill for oil, State Representative Greg Vitali believes they’re the ones stalling the solutions the health groups are calling for. Vitali introduced a bill that would establish a health registry, mandate doctors to report cases, and force drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Whether or not Vitali’s bill will be passed is yet to be seen. In the meantime, DOH spokeswoman Holli Senior said, “We believe the steps we are taking moving forward show we’re trying to be as transparent as possible. We are following up on complaints, and we’ve kept the ball rolling.”