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Lawsuit Filed As One-Year Anniversary Of Fracking Health Study Nears

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It’s been nearly a year since the administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state health commissioner would conduct a review to determine whether hydrofracking could be done safely in New York. Since then, little information has been released on the on going study. Now, an anti-fracking group is suing the state to find out what exactly is being reviewed.

The 23 year old Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association filed papers in State Supreme Court to  demand that the public be allowed to know what exactly Governor Cuomo’s health commissioner is reviewing. On September 20th, 2012, Cuomo’s environmental commissioner said he’d directed the governor’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, to look at the environmental agency’s data, and to contract with outside health experts before a decision can be made on whether to allow fracking in New York.

Since then, Dr. Shah has said he’s visited states that allow hydrofracking, including neighboring Pennsylvania, and met with EPA officials to discuss on going studies.

But no further details have been released. Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association President Mary Anne Kowalski says her group already used the Freedom of Information Law to request that the documents be released.

“Frankly we expected to see laboratory data and charts, maybe some epidemiological studies,” Kowalski said.  

Kowalski says instead, her group got nothing. They were told that the documents were not available. The Seneca Lake association appealed to the Cuomo Administration, and their appeal was denied. Now, they’re petitioning the courts, and are asking for a hearing in October.

Coincidentally, Kowalski used to work at the State Health Department, in its research lab, and part of her job as Director of Regulatory Affairs was to handle Freedom of Information requests.  She says if she’d received a similar request, she would have complied, though she admits, perhaps grudgingly.

“I would have grumbled a lot,” she said. “But I certainly would have provided any of the scientific data that was being used.”

While the Seneca Lake association and others who are against fracking are not happy with the lack of information, they says they are relived that at least the Cuomo Administration seems to be taking health concerns seriously, as evidenced by the long delay on a final decision .

“It’s good that the department does appear to be taking their time and studying the issue,” says Kowalski.

She says the gas has been under the ground for hundreds of thousands of years and if the determination is made that it can be drilled “safely and properly”, it will still be there, and might even be worth more money by then. Natural gas prices have recently been at record lows, partly due to active hydrofracking elsewhere in the U.S .

The lobby group for the natural gas industry, the Independent Oil and Gas Association, is of course far less pleased with all the delays.

The group has begun a publicity campaign that it says will focus on numbers, to document to New Yorkers the economic opportunities lost because of the failure to begin fracking. The first day of the campaign is focusing on the now five year defacto moratorium on hydro fracking in New York. IOGA’s John Holko says it’s been  1,882 days since former Governor David Paterson agreed to a temporary halt to starting fracking. And he says that’s been in place in one form or another under Governor Cuomo ever since.

“We’re going to try to get people to understand the impact this has on New York, the economy and New York’s opportunities,” Holko said.

Holko says IOGA would like to see the details of the on going health review as well, but he says don’t expect to find anything new. He says most of the research has already been conducted. He says his group can only reach one conclusion.

“This has become purely a political decision, and has no relevance to science or fact,” Holko said.

The state health department has said that there’s no timetable for when Dr. Shah’s health review might be completed.

There was no immediate comment on the Freedom of Information Law lawsuit.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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