Over the past decade, it has become clear that unconventional shale development poses major challenges to the state agencies tasked with regulating it. In many cases, the concerns are related to issues of information containment and information disclosure. For instance, Pennsylvania and its state agencies have been criticized repeatedly, most recently in a scathing report by the Commonwealth’s Auditor General.
Although the Department of Environmental Protection has born the bulk of this criticism, the Department of Health has come under fire too. According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, two retirees from the Department say “its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.” The issue of “organizational silence,” or the collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing little in the face of significant problems, is an area of considerable research. Although in many cases organizational silence comes about tacitly, in this case, the retired employees claim the silence was deliberate.
Michael Wolf is Pennsylvania’s current Health Secretary. In a recent newspaper editorial, he responded to these criticisms of the Health Department. Below are some excerpts from his editorial, as well as some observations that occurred to me in the course of reading his comments:
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has specific protocols for all public health inquiries and concerns that employees must follow.
This sounds very promising. Inquiring minds want to know:
- What are these protocols?
- Are they adequate for handling inquiries and concerns related to unconventional shale developing and hydraulic fracturing?
- How often are the Department’s protocols followed and ignored?
- How do these protocols compare, such as with other state protocols and with peer-reviewed literature regarding the potential health impacts of unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?
All inquiries are immediately reported to the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, the experts who have training in controlling and preventing the spread of disease or illness, for review and follow-up. This is a strict and standard protocol for any health report the department receives, whether it’s related to Marcellus Shale or other environmental health issues. The process includes a review, investigation, data collection and a formal response to the complainant. The Bureau of Epidemiology works directly with the caller or patient’s physician in charge for follow-up, and any immediate threats to the public’s health found would be given a priority…. A log is kept of each complaint that comes in, responses are tracked, and outcomes noted.
Based on this statement, it seems that the Department of Health (unlike the Department of Environmental Protection) should be able to quickly provide answers to questions such as:
- How many inquiries related to Marcellus Shale have been received?
- What is the status of the review process and what responses have been issued in relation to these inquiries?
- What are the outcomes of the investigations?
- What “immediate threats to the public’s health” have been found and how are these being prioritized?
- Are there any examples of situations where these procedures “controlled” or “prevented” the spread of potential health impacts related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?
Our goal is, and will continue to be, to provide information and a forum for discourse on public health issues.
This is an admirable goal. As one check on how the Department has done with regard to its goal of providing information and a forum for discourse on public health issues related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing, I used the “search Agency” box on the Department website to search for terms such as “Marcellus,” “shale,” “hydraulic fracturing” and “fracking.” The results below suggest that the Department is not providing any such information on its website:
- For “Marcellus” there were 23 results. Of these, 22 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Marcellus.” The other document was entitled “Final Progress Report for Research Projects Funded by Health Research Grants.” The document refers to a $66,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation for “Use of information in Marcellus Shale environmental and health quality public discourse debates.”
- For “shale” there were 8 results. Of these, 6 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Shale.” Another result was to the same Final Progress Report referenced above. The final result was entitled “Boron Fact Sheet,” according to which, “Boron is a naturally occurring element found in many types of rocks including shale.”
- There were no results for the terms “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”
We may not have a multi-million dollar health registry right now at the department as some have called for, but the records are kept, the proactive follow-up and coordination is happening and we are leveraging the talents and resources we have to get the job done.
The expression “show, don’t tell” is well known among writers of all kinds. By comparison, the Secretary’s editorial is long on telling and short on showing. Perhaps in the future, the Department of Health will provide evidence of its claims? After all, the strongest rebuttal to the allegations that have been made would be evidence to the contrary. But on that point the Department of Health remains … silent.