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Fracking health impact study may not satisfy enviros

A day after the Department of Environmental Conservation announced that a health impact study conducted by the DEC and the Department of Health will be included in its final environmental review of hydrofracking, Environmental Advocates of New York are questioning the basis of that study.

In a statement released Thursday, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said the government's study will be based on a careful review of an analysis it has already conducted. Martens strongly defended the government's right to control the process:

I believe 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.

WXXI's Karen DeWitt spoke with Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates on Friday about the "health impact analysis" referred to in the DEC's statement:

Nadeau, who was one of several environmentalists to meet privately with commissioner Martens at the end of August, says it’s the first she’s heard that the Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a health study. “This isn’t something the public has seen,” said Nadeau. “One of the first questions that comes to where did this study come from, and what sort of process is the Department of Health going to be using to assess what has been done?”

Environmental groups have long pressed for an independent review of fracking's public health impacts. The DEC's reluctance to conduct the study would have likely led to lawsuits.

Tom Wilber reported on the August meeting between Martens, the Department of Health and environmentalists in his blog "Shale Gas Review." That was the first indication that a health impact study may be in the works.

In his statement, Martens acknowledged that the DEC was acting in part to head off litigation:

Fundamentally, I want to make sure that we have done the most thorough review possible, especially when it comes to public health concerns. In addition, I want to ensure that the Department has the most legally defensible review so that when the Department issues its final determination on this matter, protracted litigation is avoided, whatever the outcome.

No details were given on how long the review will take or which outside experts will be consulted. Pro-drilling groups like the Joint Landowners Coalition were relieved that an independent review was rejected. According to coalition president Dan Fitzsimmons, an independent review could have taken more than two years.

In a statement released Friday, Fitzsimmons said his group continues to support the DEC and described its decision as resistance against pressure from "special interest groups:"

This position renews our faith that the long stated intentions of the Governor to lead, based on the facts will prevail even while biased groups recycle myths and distortions about natural gas development. As people who would host this activity on our land, we have investigated the practices and participated for years in recommending safeguards that will allow us to utilize our resources and protect our land, air and water. The State has the expertise to properly regulate this industry. These outright hostile attacks by special interest groups must be refused and the final guidelines issued, demonstrating that New York is open for business.

Martens said the DEC and DoH could still conclude at the end of its review that fracking cannot be done safely.

WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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