Last updated: July 29. 2014 11:57PM - 1443 Views
By Jon O'Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com



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Two environmental groups are asking the state attorney general to look into whether the Pennsylvania Department of Health has swept inquiries referencing natural gas development under the rug.
The request for an investigation made Tuesday follows documents uncovered by National Public Radio’s StateImpact in June that revealed a 2012 internal memo instructing all inquiries to be forwarded to the department’s bureau of epidemiology if the inquiries included words on a list of buzzwords.
Some of the buzzwords were “fracking,” “garbage dump,” “well contamination,” “hair falling out” and “skin rash,” according to the memo.
The two groups, Berks Gas Truth, of Kutztown, and Food & Water Watch, based in Washington, D.C., interviewed 11 Pennsylvanians from across the state and learned, after natural gas operations started, they began noticing physical side effects. Three of the people interviewed spoke during a news conference call Thursday.
Health department Deputy Press Secretary Holli Senior disputed the organizations’ stance and said the department is taking action when it comes to Marcellus Shale-related health matters.
Contacted afterward, a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on whether the agency will investigate.
“Recent claims generally on this matter have been misleading the public,” Senior said in an email. “It is strict protocol that all public health inquiries are taken and investigated and that the public’s health and safety comes first on any public health issue.”
The three citizens on Tuesday’s conference call said they felt they were ignored.
Citizens disagree
Pam Judy of Greene County, Randy Moyer of Blair County and Craig Stevens of Susquehanna County told reporters of their repeated and unsuccessful efforts to get information from the health department, and how they ultimately had to seek help elsewhere.
Judy had called health department offices in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg with no results.
She said she and her family members experienced constant fatigue and nose, eye and throat irritation that started a few weeks after a compressor station went online 780 feet from her home.
She found a man in Texas who advised her on the possible dangers the new station could bring.
“The information he provided should have been readily available” from the state, Judy said. “I should not have had to seek information that I needed outside of my state.”
Moyer, a truck driver from Portage, near Johnstown, had worked for a half-dozen or so gas companies, driving a truck.
He frequented active well pads where there was active drilling, and he believes materials on those sites caused him to break out in painful bumps and rashes that still linger after years.
He was in and out of emergency rooms and spent weeks at a time in the hospital as doctors tried to diagnose him, he said.
“Nobody (in Harrisburg) would answer any of my questions,” Moyer said. “I started searching the internet on my own.”
In 2011, Moyer hired a Harrisburg attorney to help him find answers to his affliction.
Frequent nosebleeds
Stevens, a vocal Susquehanna County activist, believes hydraulic fracturing operations about a mile from his home in Silver Lake Township contaminated his water supply and caused him to get frequent and spontaneous nosebleeds about a year ago.
“I never had a nosebleed that wasn’t in response to getting hit on the face (before drilling started nearby),” Stevens said.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling method used to extract petroleum that uses fluid forced underground at high pressure to break up rock formations releasing trapped gas or oil. Pennsylvania is poised to become the second-highest gas-producing state in the country with more than 6,000 active wells, second only to Texas.
Stevens contacted the health department’s main office in Harrisburg several times over the subsequent weeks, he said, but no one followed through with his complaint, and he believes his call never was logged.
“They took my name and number and assured me someone would call me back,” Stevens said.
He never received a return phone call, he said. Only after he stopped drinking his well water, the nosebleeds ceased, he said.
During the conference call, Sam Bernhardt of Food & Water Watch interrupted to say he had just then received an email from the Attorney General’s office. An environmental crimes agent had asked him for names, phone numbers and addresses for the 11 people claiming physical ailments.
“It was strangely timed that it was literally in the middle of that call,” Bernhardt said.
The agent told Bernhardt someone from the unit would contact the 11 citizens “as schedules permit.”
In her email, Senior said her office could not confirm an investigation from the Attorney General’s Office is now under way.
The StateImpact reports are hinged on interviews with two former health department employees who told an NPR reporter they were not allowed to talk to citizens with gas production-related inquiries.
The 2012 “buzzword” memo in question was designed to offer guidance for employees handling such calls, but it was not intended as a tool to ignore claims gas development is causing health issues, Senior said. It asked directors to share with their staff guidance that will help better track inquiries pertaining to cancer clusters, health concerns related to drilling and other health hazards.
“Providing guidance and assistance to our 1,300 dedicated employees on how to identify and recognized calls with specific complaints — and then tracking and following up on those complaints — is exactly what the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve and what our department is committed to doing,” Senior said.
Lawmakers’ request
Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, also would like to see the health department explain allegations that show the department has been “less than responsive and quite unhelpful in providing information to the public.”
On July 2, Yudichak, who is minority chair of the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, sent a letter to health department Secretary Michael Wolf asking for an explanation. He asked for four things:
• List of current procedures for handling gas drilling-related inquiries.
• Information to be posted to the department’s website about natural gas drilling as it relates to public health.
• Cooperation with the Department of Environmental Protection to develop information and respond to public requests for information.
• Status of any long-term research into natural gas drilling and its health effects.
Yudichak was not available for comment Tuesday, but a spokesman said the letter has not been answered.

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