Two retirees from the Pennsylvania Department of Health say its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.
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.
In the more than 20 years he worked for the department, Deasy said, “community health wasn’t told to be silent on any other topic that I can think of.”
Companies have drilled more than 6,000 wells into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale over the last six years, making it the fastest-growing state for natural gas production in America.
Amid the record-breaking development, public health advocates have expressed concern that Pennsylvania has not funded research to examine the potential health impacts of the shale boom.
Doctors have said that some people who live near natural gas development sites – including well pads and compressor stations – have suffered from skin rashes, nausea, nosebleeds and other ailments. Some residents believe their ill health is linked to drilling, but doctors say they simply don’t have the data or research – from the state or other sources – to confirm that.
A state Department of Health spokesperson denied that employees were told not to return calls. Aimee Tysarczyk said all complaints related to shale gas drilling are sent to the Bureau of Epidemiology. Since 2011, she said, the agency has logged 51 complaints, but has found no link between drilling and illness.
“A list of buzzwords”
Tammi Stuck has been retired for just over two years. 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.
“And somebody was supposed to call them back and address their concerns,” she said, adding that she never knew whether these callbacks occurred.
Sometimes, Stuck said, people would call again, angry they had not heard back from anyone from the department.
Stuck did not usually answer the phone at the Uniontown office. But on the few occasions when she did pick up and the caller was making a drilling-related complaint, she never found out what happened after she passed the information on to her supervisor.
Stuck said she has spoken to employees working in other state health centers who received the same list of buzzwords and the same instructions on how to deal with drilling-related calls.
“People were saying: Where’s the Department of Health on all this?” Stuck said. “The bottom line was we weren’t allowed to say anything. It’s not that we weren’t interested.”
Marshall Deasy worked in the Bureau of Epidemiology in Harrisburg for more than 20 years, retiring last June. Deasy was a primary investigator of food- and waterborne outbreaks and his work put him in contact with community health nurses across the state, such as Tammi Stuck.
He said some nurses told him they were not allowed to respond to complaints about gas drilling.
In his office in Harrisburg, Deasy said the subject of natural gas development was considered “taboo” and was not openly discussed among fellow employees.
However, he was aware that a colleague in the Bureau of Epidemiology was maintaining a list of drilling-related calls. When reached by StateImpact Pennsylvania, that person declined to comment.
The Department of Health confirmed that all complaints related to natural gas drilling are sent to the Bureau of Epidemiology where they are logged in a database.
Spokesperson Aimee Tysarczyk said that a “buzzwords” list was never circulated and disputed Stuck’s account that nurses were instructed not to return calls.
“Typically, the protocol is that when a call comes in, they log the information and they contact the Bureau of Epidemiology here who follows up directly with that individual,” Tysarczyk said. “If there’s a physician involved, then they will follow up with the physician.”