Fracking Truth to Fracking Power

US President Barack Obama walks past an oil rig to a stage to speaks at an oil and gas production fields on federal lands Mar
US President Barack Obama walks past an oil rig to a stage to speaks at an oil and gas production fields on federal lands March 21, 2012 near Maljamar, NM. Obama spoke on expanding domestic oil and gas production. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Does fracking kill more people than it employs?

"Your silence will not protect you."
--Audre Lorde

On July 18, the Democratic Conference of the New York Senate held a forum on allegations of government-industry collusion in the creation and revision of a scientific review that will form the basis of an upcoming decision to prohibit or permit fracking in the state of New York. More specifically, documents made public by Environmental Working Group through Freedom of Information Law requests reveals that the environmental impact statement was crafted by the Department of Environmental Conservation under the watchful eye of the gas industry, whose representatives enjoyed exclusive access to high-level officials within the DEC during the drafting of the document. At the same time, the petitions and requests for meetings sent to this same agency by many of us in the scientific and medical community have fallen on deaf ears.

Here are my own remarks from this remarkable day of testimony, which included statements from leading economists, physicians, and scientists.

Good afternoon, Senator Avella and distinguished members of the Senate. Thank you for inviting me to testify today. My name is Sandra Steingraber. I am a PhD biologist with doctoral training from the University of Michigan. I currently serve as Distinguished Scholar in Residence within the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca College, and for the past twenty years have been working in the field of environmental health.

In this capacity, I've had the honor of serving on public health advisory councils, including President Clinton's National Action Plan on Breast Cancer, and as science advisor to public research initiatives, including the California Breast Cancer Research Program. I've testified before the President's Cancer Panel, authored three books and two white papers on environmental health, and am co-editor of the University of California report Identifying Gaps in Breast Cancer Research, which is a 510-page document.

I thought the California report I helped prepare was monumental until I read the revised draft supplemental environmental impact statement for hydraulic fracturing in New York -- the sGEIS -- which is three times as long and weighs 15 pounds.

I wish I could say that the sGEIS is three times as thorough. It is not. This scientific review -- upon which the decision to permit or prohibit hydrofracking in our state is to rest -- is riddled with flaws in logic and analysis, is arbitrary in the data it chooses to include, and dresses up assertions as fact with no supporting empirical evidence. Most troubling, it makes no attempt to evaluate the effects of shale gas extraction on public health or quantify medical costs. Instead, the sGEIS simply denies that health impacts exist.

On June 29, 2012, Gannett journalist Jon Campbell reported that the state's county health departments had, last January, expressed grave concerns about this omission in a pair of reports to the state's 18-member High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Panel. However, "shortly after the reports were submitted and a day before they were supposed to be unveiled, the panel meeting was abruptly canceled. The advisory board hasn't met since and has been placed on hiatus."

When I read about the non-receipt of these documents by the advisory panel, I actually felt better. The disappearance of the county health officials' two reports helped explain a pattern of refusal by both the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Governor's office to acknowledge similar communiqués submitted by New York's doctors and scientists, including some that I have helped prepare.

I've brought with me a sample of these statements. The first two are a pair of letters I wrote to DEC commissioner Joseph Martens shortly after he and I were both keynote speakers at an EPA conference on environmental health. In these letters, I detail new research findings on fracking-related air pollutants and associated risks for heart disease. I received no response. The third, a letter from October 2011, signed by many hundreds of health professionals and scientists, asks the DEC for a comprehensive health impact assessment. We received no reply.

The fourth, from December 2011, is a fully referenced review that speaks directly to the cancer risks posed by drilling and fracking operations. It is signed by dozens of cancer advocacy organizations representing more than 100,000 New York cancer survivors and their physicians. No reply from the DEC.

The fifth and most recent is a letter expressing the collective objection by more than 300 leading New York scientists and physicians to the leaked plan to open New York's Southern Tier to fracking. In return, so far, silence.

By contrast, the gas industry's concerns and queries over the same period of time were met by much more than stone walls by the DEC. Communiqués obtained by the Environmental Working Group under New York's Freedom of Information Law now reveal that industry representatives enjoyed -- throughout the period of the sGEIS's creation and revisions -- lively email exchanges, phone conversations, face-to-face meetings, and, at the very least, sneak peaks at the manuscript in progress.

The scientific analysis that is supposed to provide our Governor the facts and information he needs to make a crucial decision was crafted with the guidance of the gas industry, not of the state's scientists.

No wonder the draft document bears little resemblance to an impartial, comprehensive scientific review. No wonder that, after four years of study, we still cannot answer fundamental questions:

Will fracking in New York kill more people than it will employ?

Who will be harmed by fracking, and how much will those injuries cost?

For that analysis, I'm pleased that my testimony today is followed by that of Elaine Hill, who has new, groundbreaking research to share from Pennsylvania on the impacts of natural gas extraction on the health of newborn babies.

I would like to commend Ms. Hill for her courage in coming forward and sharing her data. She is doing so because I asked her to. As a doctoral student, she has her whole career in front of her and has no protection of tenure. She is bringing forth the first population-based, observational evidence for harm to humans living near drilling and fracking operations. That population is newborn babies.

Senator Avella, I hope that the courage that Ms. Hill is showing today in speaking truth to power is matched by equivalent acts of courage by members of our state government. I trust that her words today will be met by more than silence.

Thank you.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. |