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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Maryland releases fracking health impacts assessment

A report by the University of Maryland School of Public Health - part of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative - has assessed the potential public health effects of allowing unconventional natural gas development in western Maryland.

This public health study draws upon several methods of a rapid Health Impact Assessment (HIA) including: scoping, assessment of baseline health and potential health impacts of shale gas development, and this final report with recommendations for public health responses. The scoping process sought input from a wide range of stakeholders through public meetings and publication of a draft detailed scoping document. Comments on the scoping document were used to make modifications to the scope and are reflected in this final report…
Although global climate change is a major concern and some stakeholders wanted it included, it remains beyond the scope of this study. Our focus is on public health impacts that would be concentrated in and unique to the Garrett and Allegany County populations living and working near the sites of shale gas development…
Our assessments of potential health impacts are not predictions that these effects will necessarily occur in Maryland, where regulation is likely to be stricter than in some states where UNGDP [unconventional natural gas drilling and production] is already underway. Rather, we provide assessments of the impacts that could occur and that need to be addressed by preventive public health measures if and when drilling is allowed. Thus, the focus of our recommendations is on answering this question: Given the baseline population health, vulnerabilities, and potential impacts of UNGDP, how can Maryland best protect public health if and when UNGDP goes forward? 
the study foresees a "high likelihood" of gas development causing air pollution that could harm nearby residents as well as drilling crews. It also warns of strains on the health care system in Garrett and Allegany counties and increases in crime, drug abuse, traffic accidents and other social problems from the influx of gas industry workers.
The study further predicts "moderately high" likelihood of problems with water, soil and noise pollution from fracking.
[It] calls for restricting injection of wastewater into the ground and proposes more study of how far drilling should be from homes. 
The report contains 52 recommendations for addressing the potential risks to public health.  Many of them match the recommendations in the interim final best practices report that Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources released on July 11, 2014. Others are new. 
A university press release says that the recommendations include: 
…health surveillance to verify the effectiveness of preventive measures, disclosure of all chemicals used in [unconventional natural gas drilling and production], and legislation and regulations to empower surface owners and impacted communities to control their local environment. 
Maryland has so far undertaken a prudent, cautious, transparent - and, in my view, exemplary - approach to considering allowing unconventional natural gas development in a very sensitive area of the state.  (Full disclosure: I consulted to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources as part of their participation in the Safe Drilling Initiative.

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