Republican ex-Pa. health chief on fracking risks: “Don’t BS the public”

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The fracking health scandal in the state of Pennsylvania just keeps getting worse. It was just last month that I told you that former mid-level workers in the Pennsylvania state Health Department had admitted to a reporter that they started getting unusual directives on fracking not long after the state’s pro-Big-Oil Republican governor, Tom Corbett, took office in 2011. They received a list of fracking “buzzwords” which meant that instead of taking calls from concerned citizens, they kicked complaints about gas drilling to another department which rarely got back to the public. In addition, workers were told to not attend public meetings on fracking — presumably so they wouldn’t made comments that might comfort environmentalists.

Now the other shoe has dropped. The Associated Press reached out to the man who was Corbett’s health commissioner for much of the governor’s term in office. What Eli Avila — who eventually resigned and took a job as a health official in upstate New York — had to say was truly astounding. Avila told the AP that high-ranking officials under Corbett — who has received at least $1.7 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests — worked to kill studies that would determine whether pollution from fracking was harming Pennsylvanians.

Here’s some of what Avila said:

PITTSBURGH – A former Pennsylvania 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.

Eli Avila also says the state’s current strategy is a disservice to people and to the drilling industry because health officials need to be proactive in protecting the public.

“The lack of any action speaks volumes,” said Avila, now the public health commissioner for Orange County, N.Y. “Don’t BS the public. Their health comes first.”

Avila said he believed senior political advisers did a “disservice” to Gov. 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, said Avila, who served in the Corbett administration.

“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 is not a problem.

Over the last few years, I — and many others — have extensively documented the potential health risks from fracking in Pennsylvania, which sits atop the resource-rich Marcellus Shale formation and has been an epicenter of the fracking boom in the United States. Farmers and other rural residents of the state have complained of headaches, nausea, gastro-intestinal problems, respiratory problems, and worse. And they suspect these woes are linked to the tainted air that spews from these nearby fracking rigs, or the water they drink that may have been contaminated by faulty well casings. They worry about other impacts, sich as the dumping of radioactive wastewater in local streams and rivers.

The role of state governments should be clear: To regulate this new industry, to make sure that fracking is done safely. The fracking technology has only been used to extract oil and gas for about a decade, and right now people have questions and demand answers. This is where the state health department could have been a valuable tool to study and verify the health claims of Pennsylvania citizens, to learn what regulations need to be tightened, or whether a moritorium would be in order, as remains the case next door in New York State.

Instead, the state of Pennsylvania chose to kowtow to the governor’s wealthy campaign donors and ignore the very real concerns of everyday citizens about their health — as confirmed by a former member of the governor’s inner circle. That is an unconscionable situation. This November the people of the Keystone State are holding an election for governor, and right now Corbett is losing by more than 20 percentage points — exactly because of policies like these. Hopefully a fresh start for Pennsylvania will not come too late.

Read more about the former Pennsylvania health commissioner’s sensational allegations: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20140713_Ex-official__Pa__lax_on_fracking.html

Check out my June 19 post on the muzzling of Pennsylvania state health workers: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/pa-shocker-state-health-workers-muzzled-on-fracking/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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