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New York Could Begin Processing Permits Despite Health Study Delay

Although the New York State Department of Health (DOH) needs a few more weeks to complete a health impact analysis of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens said Tuesday it would not cause undue delay in starting the processing of permit applications for the practice.

In a letter Tuesday to Martens, DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah said the results from three competing studies, only one of which has been published, will be considered in advance of his team completing their own analysis, which Martens had requested last September (see Shale Daily, Sept. 24, 2012).

The published report is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) interim update on the potential risks of HVHF on public drinking water, which came out in December (see Shale Daily, Dec. 24, 2012). The others are a report by Guthrie Health and Geisinger Health System on the health effects of Marcellus Shale development (see Shale Daily, Aug. 21, 2012), and a recently announced HVHF study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, with collaboration from scientists at Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina.

"As we have been reviewing the scope of these studies, I have determined -- and prudence dictates -- that the DOH Public Health Review will require additional time to complete based on the complexity of the issues," Shah said. "My team and I will be in Pennsylvania and Washington in the coming days for first-hand briefings on these studies and their progress, which will assist in informing the New York review.

"I have also extended the term of the DOH outside expert researchers to continue to assist my review. I anticipate delivering the completed Public Health Review to you within a few weeks, along with my recommendations."

But despite the delay -- and the increasing likelihood that the DEC will miss a Feb. 27 deadline to complete its supplemental generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS) on HVHF -- Martens said in a separate statement that, in his opinion, permitting could still move forward. Missing the deadline could mean another round of comments for the SGEIS would be required, but it does not appear that will slow permit action.

"The previously proposed HVHF regulations cannot be finalized until the SGEIS is complete," Martens said. "However, this does not mean that the issuance of permits for HVHF would be delayed. If the DOH Public Health Review finds that the SGEIS has adequately addressed health concerns, and I adopt the SGEIS on that basis, DEC can accept and process HVHF permit applications 10 days after issuance of the SGEIS. The regulations simply codify the program requirements.

"If, on the other hand, the DOH review finds that there is a public health concern that has not been assessed in the SGEIS or properly mitigated, we would not proceed, as I have stated in the past. In either event, the science, not emotion, will determine the outcome."

Preliminary results from the Guthrie/Geisinger study may be released this year, but other results won't be available for five, 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile final conclusions for the EPA report won't be issued until 2014, after a public comment period.

"The decision to permit HVHF is important, and involves complex questions about the impact of the process on public health," Shah said. "The time to ensure the impacts on public health are properly considered is before a state permits drilling.

"Other states began serious health reviews only after proceeding with widespread HVHF. In my view, that is not the right approach for New York to take if we are serious that public health is the paramount question in making the HVHF decision."

Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The DEC filed for a 90-day extension when it became obvious that Shah's health experts would not be finished with their work before a Nov. 29 deadline (see Shale Daily, Nov. 29, 2012).

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