Pennsylvania Health Department improves shale gas complaint procedures

Complaint written on multiple blue road signs
Source: DollarPhotoClub

The Pennsylvania Health Department announced that it will improve its handling of complaints related to Marcellus shale drilling – The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported yesterday. The news comes after the Department was severely criticised for deliberately mishandling such complaints in the past.

The shortcomings of the Department included instructing workers not to return shale gas complaint calls and failing for three years to assess the public health impacts of the shale gas drilling boom, which led to public confusion.

The new improvements include providing better directions about how to file a complaint, written responses to all complaints, improved public access to the environmental health section of the department’s Web page, and better communication and cooperation with other state agencies.

“The department’s priority is to address the public’s concerns, whether they are about environmental health in general or specifically related to Marcellus Shale drilling,” Secretary of Health Michael Wolf said. “I believe by implementing these straightforward changes, Pennsylvanians will be better informed about what the department does and how we can be of assistance.”

The newly-introduced changes stopped short of establishing a registry to better track health complaints related to shale gas or an epidemiological study, despite being advocated by Gov. Tom Corbett’s own Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee. In the end the measures were deemed too costly to implement.

Katie Huffling of the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments said the announced changes didn’t go far enough. She also questioned the Department’s estimate of the number of shale-related health complaints – 57 in total – calling them ‘laughable’ and adding: “There’s just no way there isn’t more, I know that from talking to other nurses working in communities around fracking sites.”

Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said the Health Department’s past handling of such complaints has increased stress among those who have voiced concerns and reduced government transparency, adding that the administration should follow the study and registry recommendations of the governor’s advisory commission.

“Whatever the administration said it is doing now,” Dr. Goldstein said, “doesn’t fit all those things the governor’s commission said should be done and the administration said it was going to do.”

Last month, The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was criticized by the Auditor General for being unprepared to protect the environment from shale-related risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced.

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