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NY DEC head: No outside study of fracking health

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York's health commissioner and "qualified outside experts" will review the health impacts of shale gas drilling before a moratorium on the "fracking" extraction process is lifted, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said Thursday.

Martens said he has rejected calls from health and environmental groups for a health impact analysis by a university school of public health or other independent group, saying such a review is the job of government. Martens said he's asked Health Commissioner Nirav Shah to assess DEC's own health impact analysis.

"I have also asked Dr. Shah to identify the most qualified outside experts to advise him in his review," Martens said in a prepared statement. "While the review will be informed by outside perspectives on the science of hydrofracking, the decision-making will remain a governmental responsibility."

Martens didn't say whether Shah has begun the review, or indicate how long it would take.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will decide whether to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," only after the DEC review that began in 2008 is completed. Martens said the review won't be complete until Shah's review has been done.

Martens said his agency has been reviewing about 80,000 comments submitted on its environmental impact review and proposed regulations. Many of those comments focused on potential health impacts of fracking, which frees gas from shale by injecting a well with high volumes of water mixed with chemicals and sand. Martens said he recently met with several environmental groups that said they weren't satisfied with DEC's effort to address public health impacts.

"I believe it is highly likely that some of these groups will pursue litigation following the conclusion of the departmental process if they do not agree with the outcome," Martens said. The health commissioner's review "will ensure the strongest possible legal position for the Department given the near certainty of litigation," he said.

Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council was among those who met with Martens earlier this month. She said they were told that DEC had done a health impact review since the comment period ended on its environmental review and regulations.

"We have not seen that, but I understand this to mean this is something that will be vetted by the department of health and independent experts," Sinding said. "It's certainly not exactly what we called for, but there is the potential for this to be a very valuable exercise."

Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates said there were many unanswered questions, such as who conducted DEC's health study and whether there will be a baseline assessment of a community's health before drilling begins.

"We would fully expect that, at a minimum, the details of whatever analysis has been done be revealed to the public, its feedback solicited, and the entire environmental impact statement and draft regulations be re-noticed, if not withdrawn," Nadeau said.

Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said more than 250 health professionals wrote to Cuomo last year expressing their loss of faith in the ability of the health department to identify health risks posed by fracking. "With the health of millions of New Yorkers at risk, Governor Cuomo must demand a rigorous, comprehensive health impact assessment by an independent team of public health experts," Steingraber said.

Dan Fitzsimmons, head of a coalition of landowner groups seeking leases with gas drilling companies, said Martens' rejection of an independent health review by an outside group was "very good news."

"I'd much rather see the DEC do this," Fitzsimmons said. "That way, we'll know it's going to be kept to the science and the facts, an unbiased study."