FRACKING: Pennsylvania Gags Physicians

by WALTER BRASCH
(Part 1 of 3)

A new Pennsylvania law endangers public health by forbidding health care professionals from sharing information they learn about certain chemicals and procedures used in high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The procedure is commonly known as fracking.

Fracking is the controversial method of forcing water, gases, and chemicals at tremendous pressure of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch into a rock formation as much as 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels.

Advocates of fracking argue not only is natural gas “greener” than coal and oil energy, with significantly fewer carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur emissions, the mining of natural gas generates significant jobs in a depressed economy, and will help the U.S. reduce its oil dependence upon foreign nations. Geologists estimate there may be as much as 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout the United States. If all of it is successfully mined, it could not only replace coal and oil but serve as a transition to wind, solar, and water as primary energy sources, releasing the United States from dependency upon fossil fuel energy and allowing it to be more self-sufficient.

The Marcellus Shale—which extends beneath the Allegheny Plateau, through southern New York, much of Pennsylvania, east Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of Maryland and Virginia—is one of the nation’s largest sources for natural gas mining, containing as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and could produce, within a decade, as much as one-fourth of the nation’s natural gas demand. Each of Pennsylvania’s 5,255 wells, as of the beginning of March 2012, with dozens being added each week, takes up about nine acres, including all access roads and pipe.

Over the expected lifetime of each well, companies may use as many as nine million gallons of water and 100,000 gallons of chemicals and radioactive isotopes within a four to six week period. The additives “are used to prevent pipe corrosion, kill bacteria, and assist in forcing the water and sand down-hole to fracture the targeted formation,” explains Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. However, about 650 of the 750 chemicals used in fracking operations are known carcinogens, according to a report filed with the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2011. Fluids used in fracking include those that are “potentially hazardous,” including volatile organic compounds, according to Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, a part of the federal Centers for Disease Control. In an email to the Associated Press in January 2012, Portier noted that waste water, in addition to bring up several elements, may be radioactive. Fracking is also believed to have been the cause of hundreds of small earthquakes in Ohio and other states.

The law, known as Act 13 of 2012, an amendment to Title 58 (Oil and Gas) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, requires that companies provide to a state-maintained registry the names of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Physicians and others who work with citizen health issues may request specific information, but the company doesn’t have to provide that information if it claims it is a trade secret or proprietary information, nor does it have to reveal how the chemicals and gases used in fracking interact with natural compounds. If a company does release information about what is used, health care professionals are bound by a non-disclosure agreement that not only forbids them from warning the community of water and air pollution that may be caused by fracking, but which also forbids them from telling their own patients what the physician believes may have led to their health problems. A strict interpretation of the law would also forbid general practitioners and family practice physicians who sign the non-disclosure agreement and learn the contents of the “trade secrets” from notifying a specialist about the chemicals or compounds, thus delaying medical treatment.

The clauses are buried on pages 98 and 99 of the 174-page bill, which was initiated and passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law in February by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“I have never seen anything like this in my 37 years of practice,” says Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician from Coraopolis, Pa. She says it’s common for physicians, epidemiologists, and others in the health care field to discuss and consult with each other about the possible problems that can affect various populations. Her first priority, she says, “is to diagnose and treat, and to be proactive in preventing harm to others.” The new law, she says, not only “hinders preventative measures for our patients, it slows the treatment process by gagging free discussion.”

Psychologists are also concerned about the effects of fracking and the law’s gag order. “We won’t know the extent of patients becoming anxious or depressed because of a lack of information about the fracking process and the chemicals used,” says Kathryn Vennie of Hawley, Pa., a clinical psychologist for 30 years. She says she is already seeing patients “who are seeking support because of the disruption to their environment.” Anxiety in the absence of information, she says, “can produce both mental and physical problems.”

The law is not only “unprecedented,” but will “complicate the ability of health department to collect information that would reveal trends that could help us to protect the public health,” says Dr. Jerome Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Paulson, also professor of pediatrics at George Washington University, calls the law “detrimental to the delivery of personal health care and contradictory to the ethical principles of medicine and public health.” Physicians, he says, “have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the health of the public, and this law precludes us from doing all we can to protect the public.” He has called for a moratorium on all drilling until the health effects can be analyzed.

Pennsylvania requires physicians to report to the state instances of 73 specific diseases, most of which are infectious diseases. However, the list also includes cancer, which may have origins not only from chemicals used to create the fissures that yield natural gas, but also in the blow-back of elements, including arsenic, present within the fissures. Thus, physicians are faced by conflicting legal and professional considerations.

“The confidentiality agreements are worrisome,” says Peter Scheer, a journalist/lawyer who is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Physicians who sign the non-disclosure agreements and then disclose the possible risks to protect the community can be sued for breech of contract, and the companies can seek both injunctions and damages, says Scheer.

In pre-trial discovery motions, a company might be required to reveal to the court what it claims are trade secrets and proprietary information, with the court determining if the chemical and gas combinations really are trade secrets or not. The court could also rule that the contract is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy, which places the health of the public over the rights of an individual company to protect its trade secrets, says Scheer. However, the legal and financial resources of the natural gas corporations are far greater than those of individuals, and they can stall and outspend most legal challenges.

Although Pennsylvania is determined to protect the natural gas industry, not everyone in the industry agrees with the need for secrecy. Dave McCurdy, president of the American Gas Association, says he supports disclosing the contents included in fracturing fluids. In an opinion column published in the Denver Post, McCurdy further argued, “We need to do more as an industry to engage in a transparent and fact-based public dialogue on shale gas development.”

The Natural Gas committee of the U.S. Department of Energy agrees. “Our most important recommendations were for more transparency and dissemination of information about shale gas operations, including full disclosure of chemicals and additives that are being used,” said Dr. Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University and a Board member.

Both McCurdy’s statement and the Department of Energy’s strong recommendation about full disclosure were known to the Pennsylvania General Assembly when it created the law that restricted health care professionals from disseminating certain information that could help reduce significant health and environmental problems from fracking operations.

[Part 2 looks at the health issues and research studies. Part 3 looks at the truth behind why Pennsylvania has given advantages to the natural gas industry. Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee. Walter Brasch’s current book is Before the First Snow, a critically-acclaimed novel that looks at what happens when government and energy companies form a symbiotic relationship, using ‘cheaper, cleaner’ fuel and the lure of jobs in a depressed economy but at the expense of significant health and environmental impact. The book is available at amazon.com and through the publisher’s website, http://www.greeleyandstone.com]

Author: WALTER BRASCH, PH.D.

Award-winning journalist and author, specializing in social issues, media, and pop culture. http://www.linkedin.com/pub/walter-brasch/9/846/616

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23 Comments

  1. None of this makes any sense. The idea that it’s OK to muzzle physicians in a way that might allow harm to come to patients is mind-boggling. That said, I’m sure the bill makes perfect sense to the bizarro world republicans who initiated and passed it.

  2. How Republican politicians think that they can continue to pass legislation that is so obviously against the best interest of, and damaging to the well-being of the American People is beyond-the-beyond.

    Wake up America… To vote in a Republican majority in at any level of government is voting against your best interest.

  3. If Obama is serious about our energy situation, he should institute a full court press type investigation/study/whatever, to determine how best to make this fantastic energy source as safe/efficient/non-polluting/water conserving.

    Already, and yes he has had three years with this problem, so don’t lay it off on Bush, abundant NG has pushed nuclear, the only real long-term solution to the back burner (fewer plants due to come on line).

    The enormous amount of water used, should cause sirens to go off, as it is already to scarce. NG, can’t be sustained forever with that water usage and should just be a bridge to nuclear.

    Bottom line, Obama’s (and previous presidents, too) energy policy, with it’s emphasis on green soar and wind is horrible.

    I don’t know if any of the Reps are any better, but somebody should wake up already.

  4. I am so sick of laws telling physicians they can’t do their jobs or how to do their jobs.

    I thought one needed a medical license to practice medicine in this country.

  5. I didn’t think it was possible until now to pass a law like this– this should be on 60 minutes. What a scam!

    Aren’t physicians obligated to speak out if something could harm their patients?

  6. It’s all about NIMBY. What would happen if NG was found under Washington or Hollywood?

  7. Just further proof that Republicans care more about corporate profits than individuals.

    Also… talk about “death panels”! The Republicans think it is fine for a company to pursue profits while making the local population sick. And not only that but doctors are prevented from helping sick people recover.

    This is sick.

  8. RE: NG being found under Washington or Hollywood…. given that each well requires about 9 acres, I think if NG was found under a big city, in an area already built up (such as Hollywood) that it would be cost-prohibitive to buy nine acres of buildings for some NG. Because these are private companies drilling, and not the government, eminent domain doesn’t apply so people would soak the NG drillers for all they’re worth. Plus there would be environmental considerations and… as you say the… NIMBY. Sensible people wouldn’t allow this to happen in their neighborhoods. But then again it is Republican politicians who are supporting companies’ profits over the public health of citizens and these days Republican politicians are anything but sensible.

  9. One other thought re if NG is found under Hollywood…. there are enough earthquakes already. No one wants man-made earthquakes in California. At not not citizens, though I’m sure the NG companies wouldn’t mind. :)

  10. Nice to know the republicans are taking their political whoring to a whole new level. Literally protecting companies at the expense of public safety. This is really disgusting and those bastards should be thrown out on their asses.

  11. If this is accurate it sounds terrible, but the essay is pretty one-sided. Some supporting links and opposing views would provide a better understanding.

  12. Re the gas under Hollywood, remember the water required; won’t work. The entire SW is a water disater area already.

    P.S, Why doesn’t the chosen one do something, perhaps taking out all those greedy Reps with drones so he can be free to push a sensible energy policy? Answer, because he is just another full of it politician. Useless.

  13. First the EPA gets voluntary agreement from Halliburton and others that they will not use diesel fuel in fracking.

    Then the companies involved get fracking exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (except for diesel fuel).

    Then they inject millions of gallons of fluids including diesel fuel into wells between 2005 and 2009 with out bothering to get permits (because they couldn’t).

    Now they want to muzzle doctors about the problems from the effects of diesel fuel and other chemicals used in fracking on the public’s health.

    Nothing new here. Move along.

    dd is right. President Obama should be insisting his Energy Commission get moving on how to extract this resource safely, cheaply, and efficiently – if it can be done. The Republicans are only interested in eliminating the EPA’s oversight of fracking, not making it safer. Every new Republican congressman is picked for his antipathy to EPA regulations, as far as I can see.

  14. “Why doesn’t the chosen one do something”

    It seems to me you are blaming Obama for basically not being there every time to save us from republican plans. Sure the GOP are behind these really horrible ideas that seem to screw the public, but what has Obama done to stop them? What we need is for the GOP to stop coming up with and implementing these horrible ideas, not to blame the president for being too slow to stop them.

  15. LOL…………………..

  16. It seems to me you are blaming Obama for basically not being there every time to save us from republican plans. Sure the GOP are behind these really horrible ideas that seem to screw the public, but what has Obama done to stop them? What we need is for the GOP to stop coming up with and implementing these horrible ideas, not to blame the president for being too slow to stop them.

    Well said slamfu… and you got in return a ‘typical TMV rightie response’ which is why I no longer even attempt (read – waste my time) engaging them in a conversation on any topic.

    Anything other than a bad joke or intentional segue away from the topic at hand seems to be beyond their ability.

  17. Here is another typical rightie response. I can’t count the times when I and others have responded with a non-typical response giving facts and not just sneering remarks, that are then ignored, so lets try to be fair.

    LOL, is because some, Slam have ignorded the idea that the CURRENT government needs to do something, we can’t keep blaming EVERYTHING on past administrations.
    Supposedly we are in an energy crisis, is it too much to ask for some real action and not just rely on the green thing. Green is NOT ready, NG is, and its blossoming has been DURING the Obama’s administration.

    Please feel free to ignore facts and the typical rightie response, it reflects more on you guys than us.

  18. This administration has done something, lots of things, which folks on the right tend to completely ignore. Obama has not been an enemy to oil & gas companies. They have had leases granted all over for more offshore work, as well as North Dakota, and have expanded quite fast. Obama said he was going to be pushing for ALL energy, and he has pushed for not just “Green” stuff. And we are not in an energy crisis at the moment, prices are flucuating thanks to Iran being the douchebags they are and global demand and summer coming. You’ll know when we are in a crisis.

    My point is, Obama does do stuff, he is not just pushing radical lefty energy solutions, his approach has been broad based, he has worked quite will with gas and oil companies, yet the right seems to want to turn him into Al Gore when it comes to this stuff. I’m not buying it, I read and pay attention.

  19. dduck that’s the way it is – a soldier goes nuts and kills a bunch of Afghans – nobody talks about the current CIC or Panetta or Petraeus, but they do bring up Bush and Rumsfeld for some reason.

    It looks like “it wasn’t my fault and it still isn’t” will be the theme of Obama’s 2012 campaign.

  20. dduck that’s the way it is – a soldier goes nuts and kills a bunch of Afghans – nobody talks about the current CIC or Panetta or Petraeus, but they do bring up Bush and Rumsfeld for some reason.

    I knew it wouldn’t take long for an example of the “intentional segue away from the topic at hand” I mentioned but this is the PERFECT example.

    No one has mentioned either Bush or Rumsfeld (or a soldier going nuts) in this thread… NO ONE! What is more neither they nor the CIC nor Panetta nor Petraeus have any bearing on the topic of this post.

    Two TMV righties seem to be doing anything they can to deflect discussion of the horrid decision made by the REPUBLICANS running the Pennsylvania government.

  21. If Obama is serious about our energy situation, he should institute a full court press type investigation/study/whatever, to determine how best to make this fantastic energy source as safe/efficient/non-polluting/water conserving.

    Already, and yes he has had three years with this problem, so don’t lay it off on Bush, abundant NG has pushed nuclear, the only real long-term solution to the back burner (fewer plants due to come on line).

    The enormous amount of water used, should cause sirens to go off, as it is already to scarce. NG, can’t be sustained forever with that water usage and should just be a bridge to nuclear.

    Bottom line, Obama’s (and previous presidents, too) energy policy, with it’s emphasis on green soar and wind is horrible.

    I don’t know if any of the Reps are any better, but somebody should wake up already.

    Putting aside the partisanship here, I agree with this.

    I am a believer in technology, science, & practical study. I am thoroughly convinced we can make nuclear safe, I am thoroughly convinced we can implement the appropriate green energy technologies in the right places to good effect, and I am … well, somewhat convinced that improvements can be made in fracking. Someone only has to put the money into the research necessary to do it. I would advise the administration to tax fracking companies, the proceeds from which would go to such research.

    Look at it this way: we had an ozone crisis. CFCs were banned, alternatives were found, no one noticed the difference, and ozone depletion is no longer a big deal. We had a DDT problem. DDT was banned, alternatives were found, no one noticed the difference, we no longer have a DDT problem. Lead poisoning was everywhere. Alternatives were found, no one noticed the difference, we no longer have a lead problem (of the magnitude we used to have, anyway).

    Solutions can be found. Someone needs to find them, and someone needs to fund the research necessary.

  22. Barky, WTF,”Putting aside the partisanship here, I agree with this.”
    What partisanship, I said they ALL f**** up.

    If all this NG was discovered under Bush, I would be hollering at him the same as Obama. For once it IS on his watch.

  23. I generally agree with more information. What is being put into the ground, and its possible health effects, are important info society needs.

    However, I am also, as a scientist, uneasy with tactics that use broad sweeping statements when the devil is in the details. For example, bars in california have posted warning labels because CA has found alcohol to be a carcinogen. And it is even toxic (people die every years from alcohol poisoning). So it would be a big deal if a bit of alcohol is pumped deep underground, but it is easy to include it in a count of compounds on a list of “known carcinogens”.

    In this case, the key is details. Exactly what is being used, if it is getting to surface environments, and in what quantities. This it why we need more info. But is also why we need to hold off jumping to conclusions.

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