Split On Fracking: NY Gov. Will Tour PA

Sep 15, 2014

A Yale University study has found people living within the shadows of natural gas wells and hydrofracking pads exhibit higher instances of health problems. The study of Pennsylvania residents comes days after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to visit a gas drilling site in the Keystone State.

Will there ever be a time when fracking is permitted in New York State?
Credit Composite Image by Dave Lucas (WAMC)

The Yale study of people in southwestern Pennsylvania found a greater prevalence of health symptoms reported among residents living close to natural gas wells, including those drilled via hydraulic fracturing.

Researchers randomly surveyed 492 people in 180 households with ground-fed water wells where natural gas extraction activity from the Marcellus Shale is "significant." Figures provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection showed 624 active natural gas wells in the survey area. 95 percent of those wells employ hydraulic fracturing.

Study co-author Vanessa Lamers says  "One of the reasons we chose Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania was because unconventional shale gas drilling has been going on there since 2003, and it's also densely drilled. In some parts of the country maybe you have a few gas wells, maybe like one or two every mile, but in this part of Pennsylvania, you can have someone who has ten gas wells within one kilometer of their house."

Pennsylvania has seen upwards of 6,000 hydrofracking wells drilled within the last six years.   Fracking has been a political hot potato in neighboring New York.  Governor Cuomo says it's anything but a one-sided debate:    "There's equal passion on both sides. My point has been, I'm not gonna make the decision emotionally. I wanna make the decision based on information."

But the practice is in limbo in the Empire State, as officials continue an already prolonged review of fracking’s potential environmental and health impacts. The de facto moratorium has angered both the oil industry and fracking opponents. Many observers were stunned last Tuesday when Cuomo made a primary day pledge to check out a Pennsylvania fracking site.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist who co-founded Concerned Health Professionals of New York:   "We're very interested in Governor Cuomo's election day promise to take a tour of Pennsylvania and talk to impacted people there. Those of us who have done that have come back profoundly changed by our experience. In the summer I spent time on well pads in southwestern Pennsylvania, in fact in the same area where this study was just done, and met with people there, within their home, a lot of them have air monitors to measure air pollution in their homes and I could see when a flare stack started flairing you can see the air in people's bedrooms stat to change. They explained to me what their health problems are. This study is one of many now that are beginning to come out to actually take what had been anecdotal information and turn it into real empirical data."

Zephyr Teachout, who mounted what's been recognized as the most serious primary challenge to a sitting New York governor in half a century, promises she will endorse Cuomo if he announces his opposition to fracking. [Update]

Others fear Cuomo will ultimately allow fracking, perhaps limited to certain counties. They worry about problems that have accompanied fracking in Pennsylvania, things like water pollution, well blowouts and spills involving fracking fluids.

Researcher Lamers  says the most important takeaway of the study is that there is NOT a lot of research to base conclusions tying human health to hydrofracking on.    "And as much as we would like to hope that our research could stand as an important correlation between natural gas wells and health impacts, it really can't without other research to back it up. There's natural gas drilling going on in lots of parts in the country right now and we may not see that in other places, we may not see the densely drilled are as in places like Colorado or Texas, and there may be other things involved: different companies, different employees, different practices, there also could be geological considerations, like soil, the way that things move through the environment..."

And if that sounds like researchers are sitting on the fence, listen to Governor Cuomo:   "You can have academics and scientists with research stand up and argue passionately pro, and you have them arguing passionately against."