Jim Willis on health study in Marcellus News 9/24/2012

On Friday, MDN told you about the latest development in the ongoing Greek tragedy called the New York State moratorium on fracking (see this MDN story). Our take was that Joe Martens’ latest announcement that he has asked NYS Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to conduct a “health impact analysis” of hydraulic fracturing before the DEC will release new drilling rules was a bad sign that fracking in New York will be seriously delayed yet again—well into 2013.
However, landowner groups, led by the Joint Landowner Coalition of New York (the “JLCNY,” representing over 77,000 individual landowners) don’t see it the same way. They believe the path Martens chose in having Nirav Shah do a limited review and not a wide ranging so-called “independent” review—something being pushed by anti-drillers—means the review will not take long and will do a lot to address public concerns over the practice of fracking. The JLCNY supports Martens’ decision.

We’ve also noticed since the news broke that many anti-drilling groups are not happy with Martens, so it seems that perhaps MDN’s initial call on this one was not so accurate. Instead of a fox in the henhouse, the JLCNY and Joe’s enviro buddies think he’s crazy like a fox (meaning he’s cunningly outfoxed everyone). Here’s what the JLCNY said in a press release last Friday:
The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York (JLCNY) welcomed the decision by the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reject calls for an independent health study.  The DEC has been studying the impacts of natural gas development using high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing for nearly four years. Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said the final decision would be based on science and facts and that a decision on guidelines would be coming soon.
“The outright rejection by the DEC of a delay tactic sought by special interests harboring extreme views opposing any natural gas development is good news,”said Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the JLCNY, representing over 77,000 New York landowners.  “This position renews our faith that the long stated intentions of the Governor to lead, based on the facts will prevail even while biased groups recycle myths and distortions about natural gas development.  As people who would host this activity on our land, we have investigated the practices and participated for years in recommending safeguards that will allow us to utilize our resources and protect our land, air and water. The State has the expertise to properly regulate this industry.  These outright hostile attacks by special interest groups must be refused and the final guidelines issued, demonstrating that New York is open for business.”
“This is the right decision,”said Brian Conover, president of the Central New York Landowners Coalition (CNY), the JLCNY’s largest coalition, representing over 215,000 acres.  “The next step is to ensure that the review the DEC initiates is done expeditiously and is mindful of the long-term delays we have experienced that have cost us dearly – both as a state and as individuals. We cannot afford to sacrifice tens of thousands of jobs that represent the survival of our region’s economy.  Governor Cuomo has no greater opportunity to create new jobs and economic prosperity than by issuing clear statewide natural gas development rules.  Even leaders as varied as President Obama, Governor Romney and Mayor Bloomberg recognize that natural gas development is a vital component to our energy and economic future and benefits our environment.”(1)
How did we got to the point of requiring a health impact review? Martens held secret meetings with environmentalist groups who pushed him hard to have an independent health review done—something they were hoping would a) further delay fracking, and b) hopefully support an outright ban. Martens may have done an end-run around them:
The state’s surprise announcement Thursday to delay a decision on hydrofracking and further assess its health impacts came after months of wrangling with environmental groups over the direction of New York’s four-year-long regulatory review, e-mails and meeting records show.
The records obtained by Gannett’s Albany Bureau show that several organizations have been privately pushing the Department of Environmental Conservation and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to take a broader look at the potential health impacts of hydrofracking. In particular, the groups wanted the state to assign an independent group to do the work.
The discussions with various environmental groups continued through late August. They were invited to a private meeting with DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens and state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah, according to several in attendance. The groups, including Environmental Advocates of New York, NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund, were invited to share their thoughts on the possibility of a hydrofracking health assessment.
The outcome of the behind-the-scenes discussions was the DEC announcing Thursday that it would have the state’s health commissioner and outside experts assess the state’s review of hydrofracking.(2)
The reaction from the anti-drilling side was mixed, with most decrying Martens’ decision:
There were mixed reviews to the state’s latest move. Environmental groups were split; some praised the decision, while others were concerned about the independence of the process.
“While we respect the ideal of government being an independent arbiter, that simply is not how our world works,” said David VanLuven, director of Environment New York. “No report, no conclusion and no recommendation comes out of state agencies without first being reviewed, edited and sometimes rejected by the governor’s office.”
Still, Thursday’s announcement — in which Martens dismissed requests from environmental and medical groups to hire an outside, nongovernmental group to perform a health assessment — caught both sides of the hydrofracking debate by surprise.
The announcement was made at about 5 p.m., days after Gannett’s Albany Bureau received records of the health-related meetings and after the agency was questioned by several news organizations.(2)
Exactly how will the health department go about its study and review? And, is the review possibly already done? We don’t know:
As of Friday evening, the DEC had refused to respond to a single question about the lengthy statement, or acknowledge whether or not the agency has started or completed its newly announced health analysis. In his statement, Martens said a final determination on whether hydrofracking will be allowed in New York will wait until Shah and a panel of outside experts reviews the DEC’s work.
It’s not clear how extensive the DEC’s health-specific review has been or will be, or whether it will follow the guidelines and methodology laid out for health impact assessments by leading medical organizations.(2)
Gov. Cuomo himself supports Martens’ decision of not enlisting an outside group to perform a health study, and said so over the weekend:
“There was a request by some organizations that the state should have an outside of public health concerns. I don’t believe that’s correct. I believe that’s sort of antithetical to the entire concept — government is the objective reviewer, right? You don’t go to an outside, private firm for an independent review. To the extent that they say you need discrete expertise to do this public health review, fine. So DEC or DEC and the Department of Health, can make themselves available of the best expertise, but they maintain control of the review, and I think that’s the intelligent approach.”(3)