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Pennsylvania Department of Health will note fracking complaints

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People who write to the state Department of Health to express worry that natural gas drilling might affect their health will receive return letters to document the correspondence, the agency said on Monday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health updated its process for handling environmental health complaints as a result of meetings among department officials on how to address reports by former employees-turned-whistle-blowers that the department intentionally ignored complaints about fracking.

Secretary of Health Michael Wolf said the department will try to better inform citizens on how it handles fracking concerns.

“We want to make sure everyone out there understands when they reach out to us, they're going to get through, and we will make sure we follow up,” he said.

Environmental advocates have criticized the state's treatment of potential public health effects of natural gas drilling. In mid-June, National Public Radio's online StateImpact newspaper reported that drilling-related complaints intentionally went unanswered.

Wolf said he “firmly believes” every complaint has been handled appropriately, but he wanted to consider the concerns expressed. Department managers began meeting to review the complaint process on July 28.

In addition to sending letters, the department will provide information on how to file complaints through doctors, nurses and primary care clinics. The department's website will emphasize environmental health, and the Health Department will coordinate with the Department of Environmental Protection when complaints involve the DEP.

Several organizations — including the Pennsylvania Medical Society — have urged state government to monitor well water in fracking areas and to obtain independent studies on potential health effects. Companies drilling in the deep Marcellus and Utica shale formations use hydraulic fracturing, which smashes the rock with water, sand and chemicals to bring gas to the surface.

Wolf said his department cannot release results of its investigations because of medical confidentiality laws. But it can analyze data and refer cases to other agencies.

Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said the department's interest in addressing concerns is a positive sign. She'd still like the state to spearhead scientific research about fracking and potential health effects involving air and water quality.

“We welcome their interest in becoming more responsive,” she said.

Some activist groups, including PennEnvironment, plan a visit to the Capitol building in Harrisburg on Tuesday to call for a third-party investigation into unanswered complaints, public health assessment near fracking sites and a publicly available registry of complaints.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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