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Drilling opponent to leave Pitt post

Luis Fábregas
| Sunday, April 10, 2011

A University of Pittsburgh researcher who is a vocal critic of Marcellus shale drilling said Saturday he is leaving his post because the university won't allow him to speak publicly about environmental issues, not because of online criticism of his work.

Conrad "Dan" Volz, director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health, said he was not fired or under pressure to resign, but finds he has a calling for advocating for public health.

"There is a basic philosophical difference," said Volz, 57, of West Deer. "What the university is saying is that they don't want people to talk about things. They want to do scholarly research and publish it in journals and have it go out into the world."

Dr. Donald S. Burke, dean of the school, could not be reached for comment. Pitt spokeswoman Allison Schlesinger said she was unable to comment without his approval.

Volz claims drinking water is being contaminated by Marcellus shale drilling. He authored a report in March that showed a high concentration of bromide in Marcellus wastewater at the Josephine brine treatment facility, located in Indiana County, in the Allegheny River watershed. Bromide is a natural compound found in seawater that can form chemicals linked to cancer in laboratory animals when mixed with chlorine used to treat drinking water, Volz said.

"It is now starting to affect drinking water in the Pittsburgh area because the bromide levels in the rivers are so high," Volz said. He and others say a drilling practice known as "fracking," in which drillers shoot water, sand and chemicals into the shale to fracture it and free the gas, produces chemically tainted wastewater.

Volz's work came under attack by unnamed critics in the online newspaper Canada Free Press. The critics claimed he misrepresented facts on the report.

Some Volz supporters said he has been honest and objective about drilling's potential harm to the environment.

"He's been a wonderful resource for those who want to know what's happening," said Mel Packer, a community activist from Point Breeze. "I hope he continues to speak and finds ways to speak out."

Volz dismissed the online critics. He said there were some errors in his original report about the Josephine plant, but Pitt never challenged any of his research.

"I have made mistakes in all of my research, as we all do," he said. "Those errors were minor really and didn't have any influence over our overall recommendations or conclusions." He did not describe the errors.

Volz is scheduled to testify on Tuesday in Washington before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, which is holding a hearing titled "Natural Gas Drilling: Public Health and Environmental Impacts." Robert Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, also is scheduled to speak.

"If this were an infectious disease, this would be stopped immediately," he said about Marcellus shale drilling. "If this was Chi-Chis, and we had an outbreak of something, then all the spinach would be sequestered."

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