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Gas Drilling Is Called Safe in New York


ALBANY — The state’s Health Department found in an analysis it prepared early last year that the much-debated drilling technology known as hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times from an expert who did not believe it should be kept secret.

The analysis and other health assessments have been closely guarded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration as the governor weighs whether to approve fracking. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has long delayed making a decision, unnerved in part by strident opposition on his party’s left. A plan to allow a limited amount of fracking in the state’s Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania border is still seen as the most likely outcome, should the drilling process receive final approval.

The eight-page analysis is a summary of previous research by the state and others, and concludes that fracking can be done safely. It delves into the potential impact of fracking on water resources, on naturally occurring radiological material found in the ground, on air emissions and on “potential socioeconomic and quality-of-life impacts.”

But it remains difficult to discern how much original research the state has done on potential health impacts, and environmentalists worry that the administration’s lack of transparency is hiding a lack of rigor in its assessment of public health risks. At the same time, the drilling industry, and landowners who have leased their land in the Southern Tier, have grown increasingly frustrated with delays by the Cuomo administration to announce a final plan. State regulators have now been studying the issue of fracking for about four years.

Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said the analysis obtained by The Times was out of date. “The document you have is merely a summary, is nearly a year old, and there will be substantial changes to that version,” she said.

She added that a revised version of the Environmental Impact Statement on hydrofracking — which last ran about 1,500 pages — would include more material delving into health issues. The administration has also turned to three outside experts to review the state’s own health assessments.

Fracking — more formally known as high volume hydraulic fracturing — involves injecting large amounts of sand, water and chemicals deep underground at high pressures to extract natural gas from rock formations. The natural gas industry has aggressively sought to drill in the Marcellus Shale, a deep repository that runs through West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

The assessment obtained by The Times finds that fracking can be done safely within the regulatory system that the state has been developing for several years.

“By implementing the proposed mitigation measures,” the analysis says, “the Department expects that human chemical exposures during normal HVHF operations” — short for high-volume hydraulic fracturing — “will be prevented or reduced below levels of significant health concern.”

The analysis also rejects a broad quantitative risk assessment of fracking — the kind of study that would try to project the probability of various hazards — saying it would “involve making a large number of assumptions about the many scenario-specific variables that influence the nature and degree of potential human exposure and toxicity.”

Environmental groups have long complained that the state has refused to make documents about its health assessments public.

“The document itself is not a health impact study at all,” said Katherine Nadeau, the water and natural resources program director at Environmental Advocates of New York, who has reviewed it. “As drafted it is merely a defense or justification as to why the administration didn’t do a rigorous study.”

Last September, Ms. Nadeau’s group submitted a state Freedom of Information Law request to the Cuomo administration seeking any health impact studies that had been conducted, but has yet to receive any such documents — a common delay tactic by the administration on various issues.

“This is Governor Cuomo saying to the people of New York, once again, trust me on fracking, when on the health impact side of it, the public has been kept completely in the dark,” Ms. Nadeau said.