Environmental commissioner grilled on fracking

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Monday morning’s joint state legislative meeting on the environmental conservation budget turned into a question and answer session with state Department of Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens on hydrofracking.

The Albany Times-Union has a good report of the meeting. One topic that caught my attention was during  Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton’s peppering of Martens on the controversial natural gas drilling process. The Ithaca Democrat said 400 families in Washington County, Pa., have had water delivered to them because of contamination.

She wasn’t happy about Pennsylvania’s Act 13, either. She called it “corruption,” and asked Martens what he thought about Act 13, specifically the section that is essentially a gag order on health care providers.

A gag order? How can that be?

Check out this press release from EarthJustice that points out the concerns the nonprofit has about the Act 13 legislation. The legislation allows health professional to obtain information on the chemicals used during fracking that the industry claims to be “trade secrets.”

However, the legislation goes on to say that health professionals have to sign a confidentiality agreement as a condition of receiving the “secret information.” For example, under Act 13, the secret information may not be obtained for preventive medical purposes or even to protect a patient’s family member or neighbors, according to EarthJustice’s review.

“I feel the same way about the doctor gag orders as you do,” Martens replied.

This obviously makes Lifton extremely uncomfortable. She said the oil and gas industry pushed for this rule and it doesn’t make her want to roll out the welcome mat for them to start drilling horizontal wells in New York.

“The industry isn’t safe in my view,” she said.

Martens was surrounded by a crowd of anti-fracking activists, who chanted “not one well,” after the hearing finished. At times he was timid to answer questions from legislators.

“I’m afraid anything I say here will be taken out of context,” Martens said, bringing howls and boos from the audience.

Martens said that some oil and gas companies “have not been responsible,” but it would be unfair to paint the entire industry that way.

The state Health Department is still conducting its review of any potential health impacts from hydrofracking. Martens said there is no timetable to complete the review and that the DEC received 200,000 comments on its proposed regulations, setting another record for the state.

On Jan. 30, Health Commissioner Nirav Shah said the review could be finished in the next couple of weeks. He was quick to stress that this is not a study, but a review with a narrow charge to ensure any health impacts associated with hydrofracking have the proper mitigation measures in place.

Meanwhile, activists continue to put pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will have the final say on whether to allow hydrofracking in New York.

At a Feb. 4 rally at the Capitol in Albany, actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo said, “we will cream you if you open New York State to hydrofracking.”

“Do what’s right,” he said. “This is a moral issue. This is a health issue.”