After it was criticized last month for not taking public health concerns related to Marcellus Shale gas development seriously, the Pennsylvania Health Department announced Monday it is improving the way it responds to such complaints.
The department said the changes include providing better directions about how to file a complaint, written responses to all complaints, improved public access to the environmental health section of the department’s Web page, and better communication and cooperation with other state agencies.
“The department’s priority is to address the public’s concerns, whether they are about environmental health in general or specifically related to Marcellus Shale drilling,” Secretary of Health Michael Wolf said. “I believe by implementing these straightforward changes, Pennsylvanians will be better informed about what the department does and how we can be of assistance.”
The procedural changes do not include establishment of a registry to better track health complaints related to shale gas development or an epidemiological study, public health assessment tools that health professionals and Gov. Tom Corbett’s own Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee have advocated, but that cost money.
The procedural changes come a little more than a month after StateImpact Pennsylvania, a reporting collaborative focused on the energy industry, reported that two retired health department workers said they were told in 2012 not to return shale gas complaint calls but instead pass them along to the department’s epidemiology section, which didn’t follow up with return calls.
Also in July, Pennsylvania’s former health secretary, Eli Avila, said the state failed for three years to assess the public health impacts of the shale gas drilling boom, and that delay has led to public confusion.
And Holli Senior, a Health Department spokeswoman, said the department has received a total of 57 shale gas-related health complaints — including six in the past month — but has not identified any causation links, although some cases remain under investigation.
She said the department doesn’t have the funding to establish a registry but continues to explore alternatives, including partnerships with health providers.
Katie Huffling of the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments said the announced changes don’t go far enough, and the number of complaints the department admits to fielding is laughably low.
“There’s just no way there isn’t more,” she said. “I know that from talking to other nurses working in communities around fracking sites.”
Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said the Health Department’s past handling of such complaints has increased stress among those who have voiced concerns and reduced government transparency, adding that the administration should follow the study and registry recommendations of the governor’s advisory commission.
“Whatever the administration said it is doing now,” Dr. Goldstein said, “doesn’t fit all those things the governor’s commission said should be done and the administration said it was going to do.”
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.