Skip to content

Doug Shields Decries PA Department of Health “Gas is Good” Policy

July 6, 2014

The emerging scandal about Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) employees being instructed not to return calls from citizens concerned about — or experiencing — health impacts from Marcellus Shale gas drilling, and being discouraged from attending meetings about shale gas drilling, continues to escalate. As it escalates, the Corbett administration spin machine is going into overdrive, hoping that the scandal will just blow over during 4th of July celebrations if they play it right.

First the Corbett administration attempted to distract the public by flat out denying the existence of documents demonstrating the policy of silencing DOH employees and discouraging them from responding appropriately to the reality of health impacts from shale gas operations.

That tactic didn’t work too well because those documents, it turns out, actually exist.

Then the governor tried to spin the documents. Then it tried avoiding questions. Then it tried to claim that DOH was doing the opposite of what it actually was doing. As of a July 2nd press conference, Corbett’s spokesman claims that DOH was encouraging employees to respond appropriately to health concerns about fracking. In fact, the DOH policy made it difficult to impossible for anyone impacted by fracking to log a complaint at all, and the policy towards employees suppresses the normal level of professional responsiveness to which any resident of Pennsylvania is normally entitled.

As the administration of Pennsylvania Governor Corbett shudders in profound discomfort, observers may long for some straight-shooting language debunking the Corbett spin machine.

Doug Shields speaks onstage in September 2012 in Philadelphia. Photo: JJ Tiziou

Former Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields, the driving force behind the Pittsburgh ban on fracking, provides that language, calling a spade a spade.

On July 4th Doug Shields sent the note below to Tony Norman, a columnist and Editorial Board member at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He gave Protecting Our Waters permission to publish it, so here is the straight talk, combined with background on the depth of denial over at PA DOH:

Happy 4th of July to you. I was just curious as to why there isn’t much coverage at the Post-Gazette, or much to say by the Editorial Board, on this emerging story regarding the PA Health Department’s suppression of public health complaints related to fracking.

So, I thought I would ask you since you are on the editorial board. All in all, it is a pretty crappy deal.

June 19, 2014 ~ Former State Health Employees Say They Were Silenced on Drilling (StateImpact PA):

Retired PA Dept. of Health retirees say there was a “buzz word list” related to complaints regarding fracking related complaints and employees say there were told to not respond to these citizen complaints. Also they need permission to attend any public meetings related to fracking (particularly those on public health) The PA Health Department denies it all.

Two retirees with the Department of Health have said that because of the department’s policies, they and their colleagues concluded they were not supposed to respond directly to public health concerns or attend forums about drilling.

“The Health Department initially denied the existence of both the drilling “buzzwords” list and the employee permission form. A spokeswoman called the two retired employees’ claims “erroneous.”

Doug Shields continues:

Then, the PA Department of Health reverses course and, lo and behold, there was a buzz word list and, a “permission to attend form” after all.  But the poor, uneducated PA Dept. of Health employees simply “misunderstood.” They aren’t dumb and, they know what “guidance” means.

PA Health Department Policies on Drilling Meant to Guide Not Silence (StateImpact PA)

Michael Wolf, state Secretary of Health, said in an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania this week that the goal was not to stifle the agency’s roughly 1,400 employees, but to ensure “that we are speaking with one voice.”

Doug Shields again: Yeah, one voice saying “gas is good” no matter the cost.

PA Governor Tom Corbett, bankrolled by Chesapeake Energy since 2004. Photo: Politics USA

July 2, 2014 ~  Now, the spin cycle deepens. Gov. Corbett says he didn’t know anything about it. Well, not really, he refused to talk but rolled out the press spokesperson instead to utter the usual nonsensical blather.

Governor’s Office Denies Involvement with Health Department Drilling Policies (StateImpact PA):

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Governor Tom Corbett refused to answer questions about allegations state health department employees were silenced on the issue of natural gas development.
After the press conference, Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni initially refused to comment on the matter, but later said the Governor’s office was not involved in creating the policies:
“The Department of Health shared, as information to us, that they sent these documents as a means to inform staff of an emerging public health issue,” he said. “If you get a question that involves something that has to do with natural gas drilling, know that it’s a public health issue, and report that up the chain through your supervisor. That’s it.”

Randy Moyer, gas drilling industry worker, experienced swollen lips and face, skin lesions, and respiratory distress so severe that his 40 doctors and eight inhalers have been unable to give him reliable relief, as a result of his on the job exposure. See The Nation, “Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania

Doug Shields debunks the spin:

“I will go out on a limb here and say that that is total BS. So now, fracking is a public health issue in the Corbett administration? Or, is it not?

What’s up with that? No real coverage in the Post-Gazette. No real response by any members of the State Assembly. It is getting a bit deep in the BS tank don’t ya think?
Malfeasance (a deliberate act) in office is an impeachable offense. From what I can see here that is what has been going on.
The same is true here in Allegheny County. Since when did the Allegheny County Health Department do “economic benefit” studies on fracking? Or any public health studies?”
June 18, 2014 ~ Allegheny County Dept. of Health’s Director, Karen Hacker, MD, MPH, says this in a City Paper interview:
“There’s the public health benefit of natural gas … But I think here there is certainly financial benefit, absolutely. Right now, the health costs of fracking – it’s very amorphous. And unfortunately, given the longevity of fracking, it’s really quite surprising there isn’t better data out there.”

On May 31st, 2013, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Dr. Karen A. Hacker will be the new Health Department Director for Allegheny County. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Doug Shields comments on Dr. Hacker’s surprise:

“Not surprising at all, Dr. Hacker, when no one is collecting it. Her comments are without foundation in either science nor fact. Not a good thing to hear coming from the County’s top public health official.  On one hand she says there is no data to review and on the other she says it’s [fracking is] good for our health.

“It isn’t surprising at all, given the fact that public health officials have to toe the line, with both Governor Corbett and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at the helm, or lose their jobs.

Independently yours,

Doug Shields

Where’s The Health Data?

Like a good investigative journalist himself, Doug Shields follows up with the deeper background story of how the state of Pennsylvania has steadfastly refused to collect data on the health impacts of fracking.  Here’s Doug:
“Governor Corbett’s former PA Secretary of Health tried to have some sort of scientific approach to the problem but was immediately shot down on the idea by both then Sect’y of DEP Krancer and Governor Corbett.  Never happened.”
From the New York City Legal ExaminerPA Health Secretary Wants Tracking of Residents’ Health Near Natural Gas Wells:

In response to growing concern and public outcry about the way natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale affects the health of residents, Secretary of Health Eli Avila told Lieutenant Governor Cawley and the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission the state needs to take steps to address those concerns.

“In order to refute or verify claims that public health is being impacted by drilling in the Marcellus Shale, there must be a comprehensive and scientific approach to evaluating over time health conditions of individuals who live in close proximity to a drilling site or are occupationally exposed,” Avila told the Commission.

 

From Keystone Politics.com: “Avila Wants to Track Fracking’s Health Effects

Mr. Avila said his department has received “several dozen” similar calls in the past year, often from those who believe their health condition is a result of unsafe drilling practices. The agency needs a “comprehensive and scientific approach” to evaluating those concerns, he said.

“We investigate them all individually now,” Mr. Avila said. “It would be great to put them all together, to get to the root cause, if there is a root cause or linkage.”

 

From Public Source: “With No Health Registry PA Doesn’t Know Impact of Fracking on Health“:

How will anyone in the state know the possible health impacts of hydraulic fracturing unless information is collected?

A health registry “is a critical issue that needs to be addressed,” said Dr. Ralph Schmeltz, an endocrinologist and former president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Three years ago, the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended that just such a registry be created to track people near fracking operations who reported they believed they were sick because of fracking.

“The most timely and important initiative that the Department [of Health] can undertake is the creation of a population-based health registry,” Dr. Eli Avila, the state’s secretary of health at the time, told the commission.

Yet Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who appointed the commission, has made no move to create a registry, and funds for it were stripped from Act 13, a bill that rewrote the state’s oil and gas law.

After the funds for the registry were stripped, Secretary Avila was himself removed from the PA Department of Health post, although the spin around his sudden departure is genteel.
From Associated Press, “Health Department Chief Exits, Cites Family Reasons“:

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Eli Avila… stepped down Thursday from Gov. Tom Corbett’s Cabinet.

Avila wants to pursue other interests and spend more time with his wife and children,who were unable to relocate and have continued to live in Albany, N.Y., since he took the helm of Health Department in Harrisburg early last year, the governor said in a statement.

Doug Shields’ observation is succinct: (“spend more time”…the standard reply).

Don’t Let Doug Shields Carry This Ball Alone!

Has your local newspaper, TV station, or favorite national thinking person’s mag (The New Yorker? Harpers? The Nation?) covered the PA DOH scandal yet? We bet they haven’t. So dust off your cell phone and your computer as soon as the smoke has cleared from your own July 4th celebrations, and write and call them until they do. Because Pennsylvanians — and all residents of shale country, everywhere — are humans, not guinea pigs.

7 Comments
  1. macman2 permalink
    July 6, 2014 8:35 am

    It is the full intention of the gas industry to suppress any health information and data collection. If they claim it is safe as their commercials say, why are they afraid of collecting the data? No data, no scientific studies, no problems with fracking. NOT!

    The real problem for the Health Department is that they have compromised their integrity for the sake of political expediency. The Secretary of Health has no public health training and is a marketing exec. Does that sum up the sorry state of the department?

    • July 6, 2014 9:05 am

      The citizens of our state should be outraged and express that outrage.

  2. July 6, 2014 9:00 am

    Public health impacts are not just from the fracking chemicals and leaking methane in the air, water and land. When the gas is extracted radioactive radon comes up with the methane. The radioactive half life of radon is 3.8 days. Nobody can sell or buy a house without testing and mitigating for radon. We know the health impact from breathing in radon from the uranium miners and the home owners who bought homes built with the uranium mill tailings as land fill or aggregate for their concrete foundations out West. There is no safe level of radiation. The affects of radiation are cumulative. We need to test and monitor the gas for radon emissions like the legislation pending in the New York State legislature.

  3. July 6, 2014 9:38 am

    Money buys influence. As Congressman Joe Kolter said, We are prostitutes. Dr. Hacker has a political appointment. The Health Dept. should only focus on Health. not about the bottom line of Oil & Gas drillers. That statement shines why she was put in that position and issued that response. Public Health is a Major Issue, not to be connected to corporate profit. Maybe now our eyes are finally opening and our ears are hearing about the abuse of our family’s health. We work in pollution to make a living & save money by ruining our health. Only to spend it all trying to recover our health. This is the real FEUDAL SYSTEM. When government fails to protect the citizens, it is not only the peoples right but their duty to replace that government.

  4. July 6, 2014 1:12 pm

    From NY- Every person who takes any office puts their right hand up and takes an OATH of office. In state positions the oath is to uphold the constitution of that state. The PA constitution and state bill of rights clearly states a protection of health, welfare and enjoyment of personal property for the citizens of PA is in the job description. They are in dereliction of duties, violation of their oath of office and subject for removal of that office.

    This not an easy thing or a fast thing to do, but nothing else seems to make a dent in the grip the vultures have on PA government, maybe an avenue worth looking at?

    • Itried Tohelp permalink
      July 10, 2014 10:49 pm

      couldn’t agree with you more—but, simply put, our local politicians simply didn’t care when we pointed that out to them………………it’s so criminal….just so criminal.

  5. stevebremner2014 permalink
    July 6, 2014 3:54 pm

    Interesting to note that today’s (7/6/14) Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer doesn’t mention this issue, unless it’s very tiny and well hidden, and they ‘forgot’ to repeat it on philly.com.

    Interesting, also, to note the fuzziness of the DOH memo’s list of “environmental words or phrases” – complete with a “not limited to” rider, yet. Heck, with “Dump” in there, some rough-diamond Philadelphian could end up on the Director’s carpet for asking directions to the restroom!

    Thanks to everyone here, especially to Iris for tirelessly shoveling yet more dirt that urgently needed digging.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: