The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

March 10, 2013

Fracking health study results likely years off

ALBANY, N.Y. — A health study cited by leading environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as pivotal in helping persuade Gov. Andrew Cuomo to hold off on plans for limited gas drilling is likely years away from conclusions about whether the technology involved is safe, according to the project’s leaders.

With New York entering the fifth year of review of the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, growing calls to wait for the Geisinger Health System study to be finished could push a final decision back several more years, frustrating landowners and the industry that had hoped to begin tapping the gas reserve that lies below parts of the state.

Preliminary results could be released within a year.

“We don’t really believe that there is a fast answer here, if you’re looking at the issue of health impacts,” Andy Deubler, an executive vice president at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “You’ve got to have all the data before you can come to a conclusion.”

The study, still in early planning stages with only a fraction of its necessary funding, is but one piece of a larger body of independent research just getting under way and seeking funding.

Geisinger, based in Danville, Pa., serves 2.6 million patients and operates hospitals, clinics and an insurance program in 44 Pennsylvania counties, where fracking is being done. That gives it vast troves of health care data concerning everything from cancer to car accidents to asthma attacks. The company says research has been “fundamental” to its mission since it was founded in 1915 but also says it’s never done a study like this.

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in an email that it’s “extremely rare” for any single scientific or health study to resolve a difficult question. Complex issues typically require a series of incremental studies that either build on or test the suggestions from previous work, he said.

Leaders of an anti-fracking coalition in New York state have said Cuomo should wait for results of the Geisinger study and also call for a far more extensive, New York-specific review of potential health, community and socioeconomics effects. Such a study would involve public hearings and comment periods.

Critics worry about the environmental and health effects from fracking, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock to free vast reserves of gas. There have been cases of water and air pollution, as well as concerns about the waste generated by drilling. Some regulators and the industry say with proper regulations, gas can safely be extracted from the shale, and the Obama administration supports the practice.

A month ago, a proposal to drill and closely monitor a limited number of wells in the set of southern New York counties known as the Southern Tier gained momentum within the Cuomo administration, although Cuomo hadn’t made a decision, according to two people who were familiar with his thinking.

Kennedy, Cuomo’s former brother-in-law, told The Associated Press that he talked to Cuomo around the same time about the Geisinger report, which Kennedy thinks will be “pivotal.” Soon after Cuomo spoke with Kennedy and others, the momentum to approve limited drilling died.

Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, mentioned the Geisinger study among three health reviews that could influence Cuomo’s decision. The others are an Environmental Protection Agency study, due for completion in 2014, of potential effects of fracking on drinking water, and a study recently announced by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with scientists from Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, said researchers there hope to hear this month about funding for a comprehensive study on the health impacts of fracking that was proposed last year.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s 5-year-old environmental impact study and new regulations are on hold, pending Shah’s recommendation.

This week, the Assembly called for a two-year moratorium on a decision to await the Geisinger and other studies. The Independent Democratic Conference, which shares control of the Senate, also called for a delay until the Geisinger and two lesser studies are completed.

Geisinger executives envision the fracking health study as a 20-year project divided into five-year phases, with the first phase requiring upward of $25 million in funding. So far, the project has received $1 million from Sunbury, Pa.-based Degenstein Foundation, which is not seen as having an ideological bent.

Deubler said much of the first five years will be spent building a data-collection system, although there likely will be some pilot studies at the same time that look for actual health effects. Geisinger is also partnering with Guthrie Health on the study. Guthrie provides health care in the Southern Tier and northern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania public health officials are also sharing data.

Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and leader of a coalition of about 250 health professionals concerned about the health effects of fracking in New York, said the Geisinger study is the first that will track medical information over time and by area. Researchers will be able to use the data to find patterns such as a change in the number of asthma cases in children after drilling starts in an area.

“This is one type of study we’ve been asking for, but it’s not all we’re asking for,” said Steingraber, whose group insists on a comprehensive health impact assessment with public input.

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