Health Commissioner Stays Tight-Lipped About Fracking Review

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Governor Cuomo’s Health Commissioner was questioned by lawmakers at a budget hearing about his ongoing review of the health effects of hydro fracking. But Dr. Nirav, Shah provided few details. Critics say the review has proceeded in near secrecy.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal from Manhattan’s Upper West Side asked Dr. Shah what he’s been doing since the review was announced a year and a half ago.

“Can you describe how that process has been going on in your office?” Rosenthal asked. “How many people are assigned to it? What is the scope of their investigation?”

Shah answered that he’s been looking at hundreds of studies and is “starting to put together” an understanding of the health impact of fracking, and if there is an impact, figuring out how to “mitigate” it.

The health commissioner did not offer a definitive number on the health department staff involved in the review. He said it “varies” between several dozen and half a dozen employees. The health department contracted with three outside scientific experts to assist in the review. There has been no update on their status.

Shah said he’s not ready to publicly share a progress report with New Yorkers.

“When there is a tipping point of data that can point you one way or another, my report will be ready,” Shah said. “As of today, there is not a tipping point.”

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe of the Hudson Valle, told Shah that holding a public forum on the ongoing review would give the community more “confidence” in the process.

The health commissioner, who in the past has said that the science “needs to be done in a sacred place” in order to preserve objectivity, said it would not be productive to make his work public now. He said it would “just add to confusion," and “distract” from the ongoing work.

Afterward the hearing, Assemblywoman Rosenthal said she’s frustrated by the lack of details.

“The reason I asked him the questions is because a lot of people want to know the status of the report,” Rosenthal said. “What are they studying? Who’s studying it? There’s a cloak of darkness around the entire health study.”

Anti-fracking activists, who attended the hearing, said they are encouraged by Shah’s remarks. John Armstrong of Frack Action said if the Health Commissioner is really looking at hundreds of studies, he can eventually reach only one conclusion.

“We’re confident that if you look at all of those hundreds of studies, you can come to no other conclusion than that fracking must not go forward in New York State,” Armstrong said. “Because it would impact our health.”

Supporters of natural gas drilling have accused the health commissioner of stalling at the request of Governor Cuomo for political reasons. Dr. Shah denies that.

“I don’t see myself as delaying the study,” said Shah. “I see myself as conducting the review in real time.”

Shah said once he is finished with the review, everyone will be able to see it, and to judge his conclusions.

Governor Cuomo, who’s facing re-election in November, has said Dr. Shah’s health review may not be finished before then.