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Will Fracking Sicken and Kill More New Yorkers Than it Employs?

Here is why we need a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment to determine what high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing would mean for the health of New Yorkers.

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 The HIA must examine occupational health risks to workers. These include, but are not limited to, head injuries, traffic accidents, blunt trauma,  silica dust exposure, and chemical exposures. Oil and gas industry workers have an on-the-job fatality rate  seven times that of other industries; silica dust exposure is definitively linked to silicosis and lung cancer.  With jobs creation as a central argument for the approval of fracking in New York, we need to understand the health and disability risks that come with these jobs.  Can these risks be confined to drilling sites?

9) The HIA investigators must aggressively seek out health data from other states and consult with independent experts from multiple disciplines. Medical gag orders and non-disclosure agreements in states such as Pennsylvania must not prevent the gathering of this data, even if subpoenas are required to obtain it.

10) The HIA must examine failure rates of well casings over time. Important questions have been raised within and without the shale gas extraction industry about the ability of cement to withstand the repeated explosions and intense pressures of fracking. Other important questions have been raised about the  lifespan of well casings. Cement and steel are not immortal. At what point does their degradation result in gas leaks? These questions must be addressed by the HIA. If well casings do not provide a permanent, unbreachable seal between drinking water aquifers and the volatile hydrocarbons trapped in shale bedrock and mobilized during fracking operations, then irreparable problems may be created now or in the near and distant future.

11) The HIA must assess reports of groundwater contamination in other states where fracking is ongoing. These reports continue to grow in number, and, in some cases, chemical fingerprinting has linked this contamination to gas fracking. Recent  confirmation by the U.S. Geological Survey of fracking-related hydrocarbons in groundwater wells in Pavillion, Wyoming underscore the urgency of this issue.

12) The HIA must assess the total health-related economic costs of fracking. It is possible and necessary to put a price tag on the medical costs of increased disease rates and injuries from fracking. All quantifiable health effects should be monetized using an economic disbenefit analysis, as has already been done for  coal. Many  hidden costs of fracking have been calculated in other states, and these must also be projected for New York State. For example, public health costs attributable to air pollution from gas drilling operations in Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale (a rural area, with low population density) carried an estimated price tag of more than $10 million for 2008 alone.

13) The HIA must consider the potential health impacts of fracking to future generations. These may occur as the result of latent effects (for example, aquifer contamination from corroded and crumbling well casings), loss of biodiversity and degraded natural habitat, or from an economic bust that will likely follow the inevitable depletion of the gas reserves so extracted. Some consequences, such as contamination of water resources, may be irreparable, leaving affected areas essentially uninhabitable. The rights of future New Yorkers are not subservient to those living today. In this, we agree with legal scholar Edith Brown Weiss who  asserts, “We have a right to use and enjoy the system but no right to destroy its robustness and integrity for those who come after us.”

14) Where uncertainties and gaps in data exist, the HIA must apply the Precautionary Principle. As expressed by the 1998 Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” Even a small risk of irreparable harm should not be imposed on unwilling members of a community, no matter how close or distant from fracking sites.

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