Drilling health registry never implemented – Opinion – The Times-Tribune

HARRISBURG — An unfinished piece of business with state oversight of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling continues to rear its head.That’s the matter of how Pennsylvania should track and evaluate potential public health problems caused by hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking.The issue was thrust into the spotlight again last week with the controversy over the state Health Department’s handling of complaints from citizens about sickness related to drilling activities. Following media reports that employees were told to ignore complaints, the department announced new procedures to make it easier to file a complaint and require a written response. Meanwhile, a coalition of health care professionals called for an independent investigation into the department’s actions regarding drilling-related health issues.The health issue has been on the radar screen since 2011 when Gov. Tom Corbett took office. He created the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to chart policy on a wide range of issues. The commission recommended the state establish a health registry to collect and monitor clinical data from health care providers about individuals living close to gas wells, create a system for timely and thorough investigation of complaints and establish education programs about the potential impact on health.Those recommendations have yet to be implemented.The expectation was a health registry would be part of the natural gas drillers impact fee law passed in 2012, said Sen. John Yudichak, D-14, Plymouth Twp..“It was something we thought would be included in Act 13,” he said. “At the 11th hour, the funding wasn’t included.”A bipartisan group of lawmakers since has introduced bills to carry out the commission’s recommendations.Mr. Yudichak is a key cosponsor of a Senate bill to earmark $2 million in impact fees to fund the registry.Rep. Karen Boback, R-117, Harveys Lake, is introducing a bill to create the registry. She noted that the House passed a bill in 2012 to provide $2 million for a registry.A bill to create a state health advisory panel to address public health issues has been sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Jefferson County. The proposed panel would include doctors, scientists, academics and industry leaders.Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, Havertown, has sponsored the Marcellus Public Health Protection bill to improve tracking of health effects.This measure would require the Health Department to compare the health of residents in an area of intense drilling with a control area and conduct a long-term study of health impacts.“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of drilling-related illnesses, but we really don’t know the true extent of the problem,” said Mr. Vitali, ranking Democrat on the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers.rswift@timesshamrock.com

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