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Where drillers want to use hydrofracking in New York: pending well permit applications for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Image: Innovation Trail
Where drillers want to use hydrofracking in New York: pending well permit applications for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Image: Innovation Trail

NYS fracking review thorough, says group, so why secret?

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A group opposed to hydrofracking says documents it's obtained show that the Cuomo Administration is conducting a thorough and comprehensive health study on the controversial natural gas drilling process.

The Finger Lakes-based organization is wondering, why then, the review has been conducted almost entirely in secret.

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Reported by

Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

The members of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association are wary of hydrofracking and its potential risks. When the state health department refused to reveal details of a secretive (now) year and a half long study on fracking, they filed a Freedom of Information Law request. The group's Mary Anne Kowalski says after several months, they've received their first batch of documents, and have found that the health officials are actually doing a pretty thorough job of reviewing numerous studies.

"They certainly have accumulated a wide variety of documents from various very reputable sources," Kowalski said. "They're looking at the right information."

The review goes beyond even what the group had expected, reviewing studies in scientific journals relating to energy and transportation, as well as epidemiology. Kowalski says she's puzzled over why the review has not been conducted in public.

"Frankly I don't understand why keeping it a secret was necessary in the first place," Kowalski said.

Until recently, the health review was headed by Cuomo's Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah. But Dr. Shah has resigned, to take a job with the Kaiser Health Foundation in California.

Since Shah began the study, at the direction of Cuomo's environmental agency, the health commissioner's other achievements were overshadowed by the controversial topic. The health commissioner's resignation came, coincidentally, on the same day that Cuomo's opponent for governor Republican Rob Astorino called on Shah to leave, citing, among other things, the lengthy review. Astorino accused Shah of being a "political foil" for the governor.

"The state health commissioner is doing Gov. Cuomo's political bidding in delaying a decision through his election," said Astorino, in a video release.

The Cuomo Administration says Shah's departure had been in the works for a while.

Dr. Shah, during his tenure, was closed-mouthed about the details of the study. He initially, in the fall of 2012, said it would be ready in a number of weeks, but later maintained that there was no time table for completion, and he justified the lack of public disclosure.

"Science needs to be done in a sacred place," Shah said at the time. "The process needs to be transparent at the end, not during."

Cuomo, at that same press conference in late 2013, said he did not feel a need to rush.

"I don't want to put any undue pressure on them that would artificially abbreviate what they are doing," said Cuomo.

A Health Department spokesman says the health review will continue under the acting Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker. In a statement, Bill Schwartz said "the process will continue until he concludes the review is fully informed, comprehensive and best serves the health and safety interests of the citizens of New York."

The Seneca Lake Association is awaiting more documents relating to the health review in a second shipment, which could include emails exchanged between scientists at the health department, and correspondence with three outside consultants hired to advise the review.

Kowalski says there is one big unanswered question. She says there's no indication what conclusions about fracking and public health the new health commissioner and the Cuomo Administration might draw from all of the scientific studies.

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