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Martens: Fracking health experts coming 'soon'

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Martens on hydrofraking: 10/19/12, 11:41 AM  Written by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau

SARATOGA SPRINGS — SARATOGA SPRINGS — Outside health experts are not yet under contract to help assess the state’s review of shale-gas drilling, but an agreement is expected “soon,” according to New York’s top environmental regulator.

Joseph Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told reporters Friday that the specifics of the health review are still being figured out as contract talks continue. He announced last month that state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah would assemble a panel of experts to review the DEC’s final report on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique used with gas drilling.

Martens said it is “to be determined” if that review will be completed before Nov. 29, a key deadline that — if missed — would require the DEC to reopen its proposed hydrofracking regulations to public comment.

“We still don’t have contracts with (the outside experts) yet so it’s not 100 percent certain at this point what the exact scope is going to be, but they’re going to review the health portions of the (DEC report) and how we’ve addressed health impacts in the mitigation measures,” Martens said Friday after speaking at a conference hosted by the state Business Council.

A spokesman for the Department of Health did not immediately return a request for comment.

The DEC’s report, a dense set of permitting guidelines known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, has to be finalized before permits for large-scale hydrofracking can be issued in New York. It was first launched in July 2008.

Shah’s review, meanwhile, will include input from the outside experts — whom have not been named — and focus specifically on the DEC’s efforts to prevent any potential negative health impacts from hydrofracking, Martens said.

The DEC maintains that a final decision on whether to allow high-volume hydrofracking will wait until Shah’s analysis is completed. Martens declined to say whether he believes the DEC will hit the Nov. 29 deadline to finalize its regulations, but did say that it’s “possible.”

“That all depends on whether we finalize things sooner rather than later,” Martens said. “If we finalize them later, then we may have to go back for public comment. It really depends.”

Both sides of the increasingly contentious debate on hydrofracking have increased pressure on Martens and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent weeks.

A coalition of landowner and gas-industry groups came together in Albany for a rally this week, where several hundred participants targeted Cuomo while chanting “No more delay!” and “Before November 29!” outside of the Capitol.

Environmental groups have been split on the merits of the health review, with some pushing for a more independent and thorough analysis of fracking’s effects and others expressing cautious optimism.

Roger Downs, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, was critical of Martens’ comments Friday.

“Martens has confirmed that the study isn’t a really a study at all — it’s a just further certification of what DEC has done to date, but from a different set of political appointees,” Downs said. “If Cuomo wants to engender public confidence that New Yorkers will be protected if fracking moves forward, real structure, independence and transparency need to be injected into this health-review process.”

A spokesman for a group funded by the natural-gas industry said New York’s delay is having a financial impact on property owners in the Southern Tier, which falls within the gas-rich, multi-state Marcellus Shale formation.

“While New York takes its time reviewing science that is already settled, landowners continue to struggle and frustration continues to mount on both sides of the debate,” said John Krohn, a spokesman for Energy In Depth.

Martens said his agency has taken steps to boost its proposed measures for limiting the public’s exposure to health risks from hydrofracking. A pair of draft reports released by the DEC drew about 80,000 formal public comments — many of which were critical of the agency’s health-related analysis.

The final draft of its report won’t be released to the public until Shah’s review is complete, Martens said. The Health Department’s review, he said, will help solidify the DEC’s ultimate decision fracking.

“I believe this action addresses any legitimate request for additional due diligence and study as well as ensuring DEC’s ultimate decision on hydraulic fracturing is beyond reproach either as a matter of law or as policy,”

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