PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania's former health secretary says the state has failed to seriously study the potential health impacts of one of the nation's biggest natural gas drilling booms.
Dr. Eli Avila also says the state's current strategy is a disservice to people and even to the industry itself because health officials need to be proactive in protecting the public.
"The lack of any action speaks volumes," said Avila, who is now the public health commissioner for Orange County, New York. "Don't BS the public. Their health comes first."
Avila told The Associated Press that he believes senior political advisers did a "disservice" to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by putting a study of health effects on the back burner three years ago. That has led to a cycle of public fear and confusion, Avila said.
"What are you so afraid that we're going to uncover?" Avila said of industry leaders, adding that it would be better to clearly tell people what is or isn't a problem. "It's not that I'm against fracking. I'm sure it's helping many individuals financially."
The gas drilling industry has said hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe and there's no evidence of serious health problems from it.
In 2011, an advisory commission recommended the state create a public health registry to track drilling-related complaints and address concerns. The state House approved $2 million for it, but Senate GOP leaders and the governor's office cut the funding at the last minute. Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk told media outlet State Impact recently that the department is still committed to creating a health registry.
The Marcellus Shale drilling boom that began in Pennsylvania around 2008 has generated tens of thousands of direct jobs and more than a billion dollars in royalties to landowners but also complaints about air and water pollution and the industrialization of nearby communities.
Some people have complained that nearby drilling led to headaches, nosebleeds and other problems, and there are long-term concerns about the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process that breaks the rock to free gas. But without coordinated statewide research, it's impossible to know how widespread or dangerous the problems are or even if drilling is responsible.
Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, stressed in an email Saturday that public health and safety are priorities of the Pittsburgh-based industry group.
"There is no higher industry priority than the health and safety (of) our employees, contractors and the communities where we operate," Creighton said, adding that "as game-changing supplies of clean natural gas continue to be safely produced to meet our growing energy needs, air quality is sharply improving."
Avila spoke to the AP after State Impact reported that two former Health Department employees said they had been told to forward certain environmental health complaints — including drilling — to the Bureau of Epidemiology and to not discuss the issues with callers. The memo included other subjects beyond drilling, such as Superfund sites, garbage dumps and mining.
Tysarczyk said in an email, "There was not and is not an effort to keep employees from taking Marcellus Shale-related health complaints or from following up on complaints."
All such complaints, she said, are "immediately reported to the Bureau of Epidemiology for review and follow-up."
Tysarczyk said the department has responded to all 51 Marcellus Shale health-related complaints it has received, and "any complaint or investigation is shared directly with the individual involved and his or her physician if the individual has seen a physician."
The database of the complaints contains personal health information and can't be made public because of medical privacy laws.
State Impact reports that Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Dakota log drilling-related complaints in databases, but Health Departments in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and West Virginia don't keep track of them at all.
Avila said he thinks Corbett is a "good man" who's being hurt politically by top advisers who don't let the governor hear directly from qualified health experts. Avila resigned from the post in 2012 after serving two years.
The AP asked Corbett on Friday if he supported creating a health registry for drilling complaints. Corbett said he didn't know where the Department of Health stands on the issue now.
"I'd have to know what they've been talking about before I can answer that," he said.
Another public health expert said the bigger point isn't how the phone calls to the Health Department were handled; rather, the issue should be the ongoing lack of a rigorous program to study and respond to drilling-related health complaints.
Pennsylvania is "simply not doing" serious studies into possible health impacts of drilling, said Dr. Bernard Goldstein, who has five decades of public health experience at hospitals and universities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Goldstein said questions about drilling and public health are not going away, and he suggested that Pennsylvania "do what their advisory commission told them to do," since it's not too late to start a health registry for drilling complaints.
Avila noted that "fracking's not going anywhere. So what you really need to do is assure the public that you're going to protect them." That hasn't happened, he said.
"How can you keep the public safe if you're not collecting data" on drilling-related complaints, he asked.