EDITORIAL: New report on fracking begs state response

York Dispatch editorial board
In this Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019 photo, a sign is posted at a construction site on the Mariner East pipeline in a residential neighborhood in Exton, Pa. The 350-mile (560-kilometer) pipeline route traverses those suburbs, close to schools, ballfields and senior care facilities. The spread of drilling, compressor stations and pipelines has changed neighborhoods — and opinions. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A newly released report is raising new concerns about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on public health and Gov. Tom Wolf should waste little time using the findings as a platform for further study and, if necessary, reform.

The two-year pilot study was conducted by Environmental Health News and what it lacked in samples size it more than made up for in specificity. Researchers spent nine weeks collecting air, water and urine samples from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania — three who live within two miles of active fracking operations and two who live more than five miles from the nearest well pad.

What they discovered was shocking.

“We found chemicals like benzene and butylcyclohexane in drinking water and air samples, and breakdown products for chemicals like ethylbenzene, styrene, and toluene in the bodies of children living near fracking wells at levels up to 91 times as high as the average American,” the researchers recounted. “The chemicals we found in the air and water — and inside of people's bodies — are linked to a wide range of harmful health impacts, from skin and respiratory irritation to organ damage and increased cancer risk.”

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Multiply potentially affected families by the 12,400 or so fracking wells estimated to be active in the state and the math becomes downright frightening.

Of course, none of this should be surprising to state leaders. The state’s Office of Attorney General released a wide-ranging report just last summer that outlined extensive environmental, public health and oversight problems related to the fracking industry. The state departments of Environmental Protection and Health both came in for criticism for failing to protect Pennsylvania’s citizens, often by embracing policies that placed profits above public health.

“When it comes to fracking, Pennsylvania failed,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in unveiling the report. The EHN report adds yet another big, red “F” to the state’s hydrofracking report card.

It has also added urgency to stage lawmakers’ insistence that Pennsylvania respond. Nearly three dozen state senators and representatives have written to Wolf, urging his “immediate action in response to the ongoing harm to the public’s health and well-being due to hydraulic fracturing.”

Ongoing, indeed. As the lawmakers — all, like Wolf, Democrats — point out elsewhere in their letter, “This study adds to an ever-growing mountain of evidence … that demonstrate a connection between a person’s proximity to shale gas development and a host of negative human health conditions, significant ecological impacts, and dire economic projections for the affected individuals.”

There’s no argument here. Wolf acknowledged this reality just last month when he joined fellow members of the Delaware River Basin Commission in voting to ban hydrofracking throughout the 13,500-mile watershed.

Focus is now needed specifically in the state. The EHN pilot study findings are concerning, but are they representative? In writing to Wolf, the 35 state lawmakers urged replicating the EHN research on a broader scale.

The effects of fracking are already widely known — from the financial and job-creation benefits on the “credits” side of the ledger to the environmental degradation in the “debits” column. Granular information on specific health impacts will no doubt add to the latter. There is no point, however, in waiting another two years to gather that information before acting to mitigate the effects.

By all means, conduct expanded studies, but there is sufficient information on the public-health costs of hydrofracking — the 2020 attorney general’s report, for starters — to require the governor to respond to the question with which his colleagues ended their letter: “Does this administration honestly believe that fracking is safe for our families?”

If the answer is “no,” urgent action on new safety measures must follow.