PITTSBURGH – Almost two years after it began, a much-publicized plan to study possible health impacts from gas drilling is still in the process of collecting data.
Geisinger Health Systems, of Danville, began seeking partners for the long-term project in early 2012. It’s secured at least $1.3 million in funding and has attracted a wide range of medical, environmental and academic partners. For now, the main goal is to build a data warehouse available to researchers.
Geisinger spokeswoman Patti Urosevich said in an email that the project collected Pennsylvania data on traffic and accidents, air pollution emissions and the locations of thousands of gas wells and more than 600 compressor stations, which feed the gas through pipelines.
Urosevich wrote that once the data warehouse is complete, researchers will be able to identify and investigate trends by merging health information with data such as geography, traffic, or the environment.
Guthrie Health, of Sayre, and Susquehanna Health are other major partners in the study, and as a group they have access to detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near wells and other facilities that are producing natural gas from the underground Marcellus Shale formation.
The Marcellus lies under large parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York. While the boom in drilling has generated jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for companies and individual leaseholders, it also raised health concerns.
One public health expert welcomed the Geisinger work but said a bigger problem remains: the state of Pennsylvania isn’t doing enough to fund even basic research into possible health impacts of gas drilling.
It’s the state’s responsibility to collect public health data, said Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health who is not part of the Geisinger project.
Goldstein noted that a state commission suggested two years ago that the Department of Health be given $2 million to create a statewide health registry to track illnesses potentially related to gas drilling. But representatives from Gov. Tom Corbett’s office and the state Senate cut the funding.
Alan Krupnick, an energy and risk management expert who’s on the Geisinger project executive committee, wrote in an email that health care providers “are sitting on a treasure trove of health data” that could be compared to shale gas development “to find out if and the extent to which these activities are affecting health.”
Krupnick is a researcher at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank.
In early December, the Geisinger project was awarded a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey to survey and test 72 private water wells in Lycoming County, which has seen heavy drilling activity. Urosevich said that work should provide insights “into the possible effects of natural gas drilling, agriculture, leaking septic systems and industries on the groundwater.”
Geisinger researchers say they plan to study rates of asthma, premature births, and motor vehicle injuries in areas with heavy drilling activity, but there’s no specific schedule for publishing.
In a recent newsletter that discussed the project, lead researcher David Carey said timing is critical. “If we wait too long, it will be hard to get baseline data,” Carey said, adding that they need to move toward “doing some analysis.”