By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, in EnergyWire 4/15/2014

The New York State Department of Health has tracked the progress of U.S. EPA's hydraulic fracturing study, gathered up information on earthquakes in Ohio and logged information about air pollution in Colorado's oil and gas fields for its long-awaited study on health effects from fracking.

New York health officials considered a collaboration with a Geisinger Health Systems-led study on shale gas development, though it's unclear whether those efforts ever went anywhere.

Documents related to New York's big health study, which has been a lightning rod for controversy, were released to the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, a nongovernmental group, in response to a public information request that escalated into a court case.

The documents are the first glimpse at the closely held health study headed by Nirav Shah, the commissioner of health. Shah announced his resignation last week, which is expected to further delay a study that's been ongoing since September 2012. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has kept in place a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in the state pending the completion of the health review.

The state's top public health officials were expected to weigh in within months, but Shah asked for an extension in February 2013. Shah then hired three outside experts -- Richard Johnson of the University of California, Los Angeles; professor John Adgate of the Colorado School of Public Health; and Lynn Goldman of George Washington University -- to do a review, but their appointments were challenged by the oil and gas industry.

The scientists submitted a report on their findings in May 2013, according to news reports, but that report was never released.

Since then, Shah has not divulged any details about the study. During a Feb. 3 meeting with state lawmakers, he held his ground through a four-hour grilling.

"When we started, we were optimistic, but as we have taken time to understand what is going on, there is a lot more out there," he said. "I'm in no hurry to play with any potential risks to the health and safety of New Yorkers, so I'm not in a hurry to finish my report until I'm at a tipping point of the data."

He did not specify what the "tipping point" would be.

But some of his activities were highlighted in the documents released by the Department of Health.

Overcoming a dearth of data

Shah briefly was approached about a collaboration with the Marcellus Shale Initiative, led by Geisinger Health Systems, which is studying health issues in oil- and gas-rich regions in the Northeast (EnergyWire, July 31, 2013).

Shah met Andrew Deubler, executive vice president at Geisinger, and his colleagues in February 2013 and discussed having the Department of Health on the executive steering committee, according to a memo emailed by Deubler to Shah.

The involvement would allow sharing of data and research findings between the groups, as well as the opportunity to participate in funding proposals, Deubler wrote.

Geisinger also offered to work with the department to "better understand the challenges you face in communicating with those communities in New York State most relevant to natural gas development, building a unique database of community perception, concerns and challenges."

Whether the collaboration materialized is unclear since Shah's response to Geisinger is redacted. Geisinger did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The Department of Health also looked at public health studies released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on air pollution in Garfield County and Brock, Colo., that found potentially concerning health effects. Another study looked at groundwater in Leroy Township, Pa., and found it was possibly contaminated by natural gas activities.

The department had a study on unplugged and abandoned wells, which can serve as a conduit for spills of fracking fluid or produced water. A study found that three-fourths of the abandoned wells in New York State were not plugged.

The department also had numerous EPA technical workshop documents on hydraulic fracturing, including on casing and cementing, subsurface modeling and groundwater contamination.

Overall, documents reflect how little information is available on public health related to fracking, said Kate Sinding, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Due to a historical lack of research by government regulators and industry-imposed non-disclosure agreements in private litigation by affected families -- there is a serious dearth of solid data or scientific analysis of the potential health risks from fracking," she said in an email. "Fortunately, more recently, academic and professional health researchers have begun to fill the void; unfortunately, much of what they are finding only gives reason for greater concern."

Shah resigns

The health study remains in limbo since Shah announced his resignation last week. He will be leaving in early May for a job as the chief operating officer for clinical operations for Southern California at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, said Bill Schwarz, director of public affairs at the New York Department of Health.

"This transition has been in the works for a number of weeks," Schwarz said.

Shah will be replaced in the interim by Howard Zucker, the deputy commissioner of health and a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. It is unclear if Zucker will inherit from Shah the hydraulic fracturing health review.

Environmental groups did not appear perturbed by the shift.

"No matter who the Department of Health Commissioner is, the science is clear that fracking contaminates our water, pollutes the air, makes people sick, and must be banned," said Alex Beauchamp, a spokeman for Food and Water Watch, in a statement. "Governor Cuomo has a responsibility to protect the health and water of all New Yorkers and generations to come, which requires rejecting fracking."

But a landowners' group that has sued the state to compel an end to the review expressed disappointment.

"We are deeply disappointed that he has not completed his health review on high volume hydraulic fracturing," said the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York. "The State and Dr. Shah appear to have other priorities that do not include the revitalization of our dying communities in the Marcellus shale region."

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