[Note: a shorter version of this essay appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as a letter to the editor on December 29 entitled “Pennsylvania should follow NY’s lead on fracking.”]
New York State moved on December 17, 2014 to ban fracking. After all the reports are tidied up and made available for publication early next year, the debate on the safety of fracking is over in New York. New York will legally ban this practice of shale gas extraction as too great a threat to public health.
New York’s Department of Health Commissioner Dr, Howard Zucker concluded that the public health risks are simply too great, and the state of science too premature, to allow the practice to get underway in their state. NY Governor Cuomo accepted his recommendation. When asked if he would let his child play in a school field near fracking, Commissioner Zucker responded “The answer is no.” In response, Governor Cuomo said, “If you wouldn’t want your children to live near fracking, no one’s children should have to.”
This is a little too close for comfort for all those in Pennsylvania who support fracking. After all the New York counties where the practice will be banned border on several northeast Pennsylvania counties where fracking is going gangbusters. Closer to home here in Pittsburgh, we have Mars Parent Group trying to keep fracking away from their schools and the Protect Our Parks advocates saying that drilling next to and under parks where children play is too risky.
It would appear from the report issued by New York that local advocates to keep fracking away from children have been validated. The report is online here for anyone who cares to check.
The New York decision begs the question, what about Pennsylvanians who live and work near fracking? Do our children’s lungs and hearts and reproductive systems somehow work differently that those of New Yorkers so that they can withstand the air and water and soil pollution that attends fracking?
These are not ideological environmentalists we are talking about here in New York who made this decision. New York has arguably conducted the longest, most complete, most publicly transparent process of analyzing the public health and environmental risks of fracking of any state in the union. The people who conducted this review hold credentials on environmental and public health protection that are beyond challenge. Unlike Pennsylvania, they got their jobs because they know their areas of expertise, not as political appointees doing the bidding of pro-shale gas governors like Rendell (D) and Corbett (R).
Okay, so now Governor Corbett is on the way out, but Governor-elect Tom Wolf has made no secret of the fact that he supports fracking. I have to think, or rather I have the hope that this New York decision makes him very uncomfortable.
Given what New York officials have concluded – that the public health risks are too great to allow fracking – we need a point-by-point response to the New York public health assessment from Pennsylvania’s Gov-elect Tom Wolf. Science is science, from whatever state in which it is done. Mr. Wolf cannot hide from this one. He needs to talk immediately to Dr. Howard Zucker of the NY Department of Health. He should ask him down for a briefing on his report.
It is not good enough now for Governor-elect Wolf to say that he will create a health registry. As many are saying, that just makes Pennsylvanians into sacrificial lab rats whose health will be monitored as it worsens.
I would suggest a reasonable and actionable response to the New York study. On his first day in office, Governor Tom Wolf should suspend the processing of all new permits for fracking until such time that health registries are in place and Pennsylvania epidemiological studies are completed. Of course that means that Pennsylvanians will continue to get sick as permitted fracking proceeds, but at the very least Mr. Wolf needs to respond to the substance of this report. He should say at this juncture that it is only prudent to suspend the granting of new permits. If he wants to turn his attention to stricter regulations, go right ahead. He will have about 8,000 existing wells and another 8,000 or so already permitted that can be regulated more tightly. But given what New York has concluded, why not say that he will suspend all new permits until the results of ongoing health studies in Pennsylvania are completed?
If the public health risks are too great in New York, then why are they not too great in Pennsylvania? We need to know how incoming Gov. Tom Wolf answers this question.