PITTSBURGH - A much-publicized plan by two Pennsylvania health companies to study possible impacts from gas drilling is only in the preliminary stages as the groups continue to look for major funding. Meanwhile, a group that has been examining similar questions is starting to focus on air quality, as precise numbers of people who've had health complaints linked to drilling remain elusive.
Geisinger Health Systems of Danville and Guthrie Health of Sayre are in the planning stages of examining how people might be affected by gas drilling activity. Geisinger spokeswoman Marcy Marshall said the company has received $100,000 from a local charitable organization and is seeking other grants. The initial funding will pay for the planning stage and some pilot studies, she said.
Guthrie spokeswoman Maggie Barnes said the company hasn't received any funding or started research. Guthrie will seek future grants and do research in collaboration with Geisinger.
Both health systems serve many patients who live in areas that have seen a recent boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The gas-rich formation thousands of feet underground has generated jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for companies and individual leaseholders. Many federal and state regulators say hydraulic fracturing is safe when done properly, and that thousands of wells have been drilled with few complaints of pollution. But environmental groups and some doctors assert regulations still aren't tough enough and that the practice can pollute groundwater and air.
Raina Rippel of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project said their next big push will be on air quality. "We have plans in the works to look at personal monitors people could wear" to detect harmful levels of natural gas, she said. Rippel said there've been "dozens" of complaints in the community they serve, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, and some patterns are emerging. But the nonprofit group hasn't conclusively linked the complaints to nearby drilling.
Until a few months ago, Pennsylvania public health officials had expected to get a share of the revenue being generated by the state's new Marcellus Shale law, which is projected to provide about $180 million to state and local governments in the first year.
But representatives from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's office and the state Senate cut the health appropriation to zero during final negotiations, so now the state Department of Health is left with a new workload but no funding to examine whether gas drilling impacts health. A Congressional committee in June also turned down an Obama administration request to fund $4.25 million in research on how drilling may affect water quality.
Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, was at an academic conference in Canada on shale gas drilling this week.
"All I've heard here confirms the relative lack of available U.S. funding for the needed health research," Goldstein wrote in an email.