Pa. shocker: State health workers muzzled on fracking


In January 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett took office in Pennsylvania, heavily indebted to the fracking industry (in fact, he’d received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests, and those numbers have continued to grow). Since then, he has run one of the most pro-fracking governments in America. He has blocked efforts for a severance tax — every other gas-producing state has one, even ultra-conservative Texas — that would solve Pennsylvania’s money woes. What’s more, he’s opened up state parklands and forests for drilling, urged college campuses to do the same, and has overseen a lax enforcement operation.

None of which makes a new report by the site State Impact Pennsylvania — affiliated with National Public Radio, or NPR — any less shocking. Former state Health Department workers say that shortly after Corbett took office, word came down from higher-ups that they were not supposed to discuss the public-health implications of fracking with the general public, or with anyone. Instead, they were muzzled:

One veteran employee says she was instructed not to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development.

“We were absolutely not allowed to talk to them,” said Tammi Stuck, who worked as a community health nurse in Fayette County for nearly 36 years.

Another retired employee, Marshall P. Deasy III, confirmed that.

Deasy, a former program specialist with the Bureau of Epidemiology, said the department also began requiring field staff to get permission to attend any meetings outside the department. This happened, he said, after an agency consultant made comments about drilling at a community meeting.

Pennsylvania, you may recall, is where a veritable gold rush for gas drillers inspired the movie “Gasland,” in which filmmaker Josh Fox depicted homeowners lighting their tap water on fire, as well as other dire environmental impacts from fracking. In heavily fracked rural areas in the north and the west of the Keystone State, residents who live near drilling sites have reported polluted wells, sick and dying pets and cattle, and headaches and nausea from breathing the air in their community. These are all issues that scream out for intervention from public health officials, yet within weeks of Corbett’s inauguration, Pennsylvania’s health workers were told to keep away from the fracking issue, or else. 

She still remembers a piece of paper she kept in her desk after her supervisor distributed it to Stuck and other employees of the state health center in Uniontown in 2011.

It was not unusual, Stuck said, for department brass to send out written talking points on certain issues, such as the H1N1 or “swine flu” virus, meant to guide staff in answering questions from the public.

This was different.

“There was a list of buzzwords we had gotten,” Stuck said. “There were some obvious ones like fracking, gas, soil contamination. There were probably 15 to 20 words and short phrases that were on this list. If anybody from the public called in and that was part of the conversation, we were not allowed to talk to them.”

Normally, when fielding calls, Stuck would discuss the caller’s problem, ask about symptoms, and explain what services the department or other agencies could offer.

However, for drilling-related calls, Stuck said she and her fellow employees were told just to take the caller’s name and number and forward the information to a supervisor.

Invariably, the article notes, the supervisor did not call back.

Make no mistake — this is a major scandal. It’s one thing for a Republican governor to be vocal in his support of the oil-and-gas industry. This is what elections are for, to sort that all out. But it’s unconscionable for a governor’s appointees to tell their workers not to do their job — when their job is to monitor potential public-health problems — just to appease their boss’ wealthy campaign contributors. There’s only one silver lining in this sad story, which is that the latest polls show Gov. Corbett losing in November to his Democratic opponent by 20 percentage points, or more. With this record of disservice to the public, that’s hardly a shock.

Read the State Impact PA piece on how state health workers were muzzled over 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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