First Posted: 10/1/2014

WILKES-BARRE — On Mother’s Day, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale can use his computer to follow the flowers he sends his mom from the moment they leave the florist to the moment they are delivered.

During a senate hearing Wednesday on the King’s College campus, DePasquale asked why state agencies are not so efficient in tracking and reporting data on natural gas production as the courier who takes flowers to his mother.

The Pennsylvania Health Department has been under scrutiny since reports surfaced in June that department employees had been instructed in a memo to forward inquiries referencing gas production in the Marcellus Shale to a bureau within the department.

Since the report, dozens of citizens have come forward to say they believe their inquiries went nowhere.

DePasquale was asked to speak at the hearing because the agency he oversees had just completed an audit on the Department of Environmental Protection that found the agency lacked transparency in reporting about about gas-drilling issues largely because the industry moved too fast for the agency to keep up.

DePasquale said he does not believe there is some “grand conspiracy” to hide information from the public, rather there’s a lack of manpower and technology hampering the state from effectively communicating.

The senators agreed.

“We were not prepared for the boom in the Marcellus Shale,” Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, said. The hearing had been organized at Yudichak’s request, and it was moderated by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairwoman Lisa M. Boscola, D-Bethlehem.

The Senate hearing, attended by about a dozen Harrisburg types a few King’s students sitting in the back, laid the groundwork for a short Senate bill — SB 790 — that proposes to fund the health department with gas revenue to create a public health registry and study the effects of air quality on health and disease in regions that play host to the industry.

The bill would give $3 million from natural gas impact fee revenue, which companies pay yearly for each well they drill. The impact fee was created in 2012; since then the state has collected about $630 million from the fee.

Those who testified said private community-minded interests have been working to fill in the gaps and find help for those who feel natural gas development may have caused them to become ill.

But, while testifying, director of a Southwestern Pennsylvania nonprofit health advocacy organization Raina Rippel said the problem simply is too big for college programs, hospitals and nonprofit organizations to patch together a solution.

Her organization provides information to residents in Washington County where there is robust gas extraction, and also basic health examinations.

“There’s just no way we can provide those resources comprehensively to people without doing it at the state level,” Rippel said.

A professor who has worked extensively with gas-related health issues, Dr. Trevor Penning from the University of Pennsylvania, said first there must be data on harmful substances produced by the industry and the symptoms they create.

Second: health workers must be trained to identify the symptoms and recommend treatment accordingly.