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Pennsylvania legislator proposes advisory panel to examine health impacts of gas drilling

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 8:24 p.m.

A Jefferson County Republican wants to set up an advisory panel to examine health issues related to Marcellus shale natural gas drilling.

Sen. Joe Scarnati is sponsoring a bill that would form a 13-member panel chaired by the secretary of the Department of Health.

The Health Advisory Panel on Shale Gas Extraction would look at potential public health impacts from drilling, along with potential health benefits from natural gas use. The members wouldn't be paid for their two-year terms, and it's not clear how much funding would be needed for the proposal.

Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, said he supports the proposal.

Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett's energy executive, wrote in an email that the administration looks forward to working with Scarnati on the legislation, and shares “his interest in ensuring that drilling activities are conducted in a manner that protects public health.”

Scarnati said that comment is open to interpretation.

“I don't think that they have signaled clear support at this time,” he said of Corbett's administration, adding that it wants to make sure the legislation is “done right.”

Scarnati said having a well-rounded state panel “makes a lot of sense” for the public and the industry.

Last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers eliminated $2 million of funding for a statewide health registry to track respiratory problems, skin conditions, stomach ailments and other illnesses potentially related to gas drilling. Goldstein and other health experts had criticized that failure to support research.

Natural gas production has boomed in Pennsylvania and other states over the past few years as advances in drilling opened up vast reserves buried in deep shale rock.

The Obama administration and many state officials say gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe when done properly, but some critics dispute that. Officials in New York have placed a five-year moratorium on drilling while they study potential impacts on human health and the environment.

Scarnati's bill suggests that the proposed panel would meet at least twice a year to review health data and scientific studies. The panel would submit an annual report and provide elected officials and the public with information on gas drilling.

The bill is in committee, so it could change substantially or not become law at all this year.

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