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Few details forthcoming on fracking health review

Matt Ryan

Governor Cuomo’s Health Commissioner was questioned by lawmakers at a budget hearing about his on- going review of the health effects of hydro-fracking.  But Dr. Nirav, Shah provided few details.

State lawmakers, at a budget hearing, peppered Governor  Shah, with questions about an on going  health review on hydrofracking, which critics say has proceeded in near secrecy.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, asked Dr. Shah what he’s been doing since the review was announced a year and a half ago .

“Can you describe how that process has been going on in your office?”  Rosenthal asked. “How many people are assigned to it? What is the  scope of their investigation?”

Shah answered that he’s been looking at hundreds of studies, and is “starting to put together” an understanding of the health impact of fracking, and if there is an impact, figuring out how to “mitigate” it.

The health commissioner did not offer a definitive number on the health department staff involved in the review.  He says it “varies” between several dozen and half a dozen employees. The health department contracted with three outside scientific experts to assist in the review. There’s been no update on their status.

Shah says he’s not ready to share publicly share a progress report with New Yorkers.

“When there is a tipping point of data that can point you  one way or another, my report  will be ready,” Shah said.

“As of today, there is not a tipping point.”

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe, of the Hudson Valley, told Shah that holding a public forum on the on going review would give the community more “confidence” in the process.

“That has more transparency in terms of the public providing their responses, experts in the field, scientists, physicians,” Jaffe said.

The health commissioner, who in the past has said that the science “needs to be done in a sacred place” in order to preserve objectivity, says it would not be productive to make his work public now. He says it would “just add to confusion”, and “distract” from the on- going work.

Afterward, Assemblywoman Rosenthal said she’s frustrated by the lack of details.  

“The reason I asked him the questions is because a lot of people want to know the status of the report,” Rosenthal said. “What are they studying?  Who’s studying it? There’s a cloak of darkness around the entire health study.”

Anti fracking activists, who attended the hearing, say they are encouraged by Shah’s remarks.  John Armstrong, with Frack Action, says if the Health Commissioner is really  looking at hundreds of studies, he can eventually reach only one conclusion.

Credit Photo by Karen DeWitt
Protesters reiterated their stance on fracking at Monday's legislative hearing.

“We’re confident that if you look at all of those hundreds of studies, you can come to no other conclusion than that fracking must not go forward in New York State,” Armstrong said.  “Because it would impact our health.”

Supporters of natural gas drilling say the health commissioner is stalling, at the request of Governor Cuomo, for political reasons. Dr. Shah denies that.

“I don’t see myself as delaying the study,” said Shah. “I see myself as conducting the review in real time.”

Shah says once he is finished with the review, everyone will be able to see it, and to judge his conclusions.

Governor Cuomo, who’s facing reelection in November, has said Dr. Shah’s health review may not be finished before then.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.