Cuomo's Environmental Agency Delays Fracking Decision Again

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After rejecting calls for an independent health analysis of hydraulic-fracturing, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said he’ll conduct an internal health review instead.

Joe Martens caused a stir among pro and anti-fracking groups when he issued a statement rejecting calls for an independent health analysis of the potential impacts of the gas drilling process known as fracking.

“Government is the public’s independent reviewer,” Martens said in explanation of his decision. “To suggest private interests or academic experts bring more independence to the process than government is exactly wrong. Many experts in this field have an opinion – pro or con – which could influence the process. Nor could one ever be sure that there weren’t potential conflicts of interest with outside consultants if they were to actually direct the outcome.”

In a lengthy written statement Martens said will ask Governor Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner to review a health impact analysis that the environmental agency has already completed, but not released to the public.

The announcement is the first time that the DEC has acknowledged that it has conducted a health impact study. In the past, Martens has said he didn’t think one was necessary.

Katherine Nadeau is with Environmental Advocates, a group that has been calling for an independent health analysis before fracking could go forward in New York. Her group and others are concerned that the gas drilling could contaminate drinking water, and cause air pollution. Nadeau, who was one of several environmentalists to meet privately with Martens at the end of August, said it’s the first she’s heard that the DEC conducted a health study.

“This isn’t something the public has seen,” Nadeau said. “One of the first questions that comes to [mind], where did this study come from, and what sort of process is the Department of Health going to be using to assess what has been done?”

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah will be permitted to choose outside experts to help him with the review Marten’s statement noted.

The Department of Health did not return calls for comment.

A spokeswoman for the DEC said no one would be available to answer questions about Martens’ statement.

Environmental Advocates has sent a Freedom of Information request asking to see the health impact study conducted by the DEC.

The new health review means that fracking in New York, if it is to be permitted, will be delayed for at least another couple of months.

Nadeau, with Environmental Advocates, said she believes it’s a good sign that Governor Cuomo is not “rushing” to frack. Earlier this year, Cuomo hinted that fracking could begin by the end of this year on a limited basis in communities that want gas drilling. But in recent weeks he’s said there is no timetable.

Cuomo said he’s not pushing his environmental agency to make a final decision on fracking any time soon.

“I didn’t want an artificial deadline,” Cuomo said. He said he told the DEC “when you have completed an intelligent, thorough process, then you should announce your decision.”

While Cuomo is proceeding cautiously, some landowners with gas drilling leases are growing impatient for fracking to begin.

Dan Fitzsimmons, President of the Joint Landowner Coalition of New York, said his group of 77,000 landowners is happy that the Cuomo administration rejected demands from what he called “special interests” to conduct an independent health review. But he said the regulatory process has been going on for four years now.

“It is just another delay,” said Fitzsimmons. “We’ve seen a lot of them.”

Fitzsimmons said an independent health review could have taken another two to four years.  

The Independent Oil and Gas Association issued a brief statement supporting Commissioner Martens decision not to allow an independent health assessment, saying it’s the environmental agency’s job to assess and promulgate all regulations for fracking.

Martens, in his statement, agreed, saying it’s his department’s responsibility to assess the health risks. Martens added that he wants the department to have conducted the “most legally defensible review,” to avoid “protracted litigation.”

Martens said if there is a public health concern that cannot be addressed, then fracking will not “proceed.”