Pennsylvania should create a registry to monitor the health of state residents and search for potential health impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling, said Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Eli Avila.

“In order to refute or verify claims that public health is being impacted by drilling in the Marcellus Shale, there must be a comprehensive and scientific approach to evaluating over time health conditions of individuals who live in close proximity to a drilling site or are occupationally exposed,” Avila told members of Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in Harrisburg Friday.

Avila testified that his department “must be empowered to provide for a timely and thorough investigation of and response to concerns or complaints raised by citizens, health care providers or public officials.”

As Marcellus drilling ramps up in the state, “I anticipate — at least in the short term — a proportionate increase in concerns and complaints, which the department must be prepared to address,” he said. “In order for thorough investigations to take place, the department should be routinely evaluating and assessing environmental and clinical data.”

Over the past year the department has been contacted by dozens of Pennsylvanians who believe that their health problems are related to natural gas drilling in the state, but no link between drilling and the illnesses has been established, Avila said.

A series of regional studies conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has failed to uncover air emissions from natural gas operations that would trigger health issues (see Shale Daily, May 24).

Because of the “potential enormity” of compiling and evaluating data in the registry, the Department of Health would likely “partner or even contract with entities that would be more adequately situated to carry out such a task,” he said.

At the same meeting, officials from organizations representing Pennsylvania’s counties, boroughs and townships spoke about the local impacts of Marcellus operations. In areas of heavy activity, municipalities have seen a sharp increase in labor costs and have had to increase hours or hire additional employees to keep up with the pace of development, according to Elam Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS).

“Many municipalities do not receive prior notice before a company begins construction on a new well site,” Herr told the commission. “Often the first notice has been the sudden arrival of heavy truck traffic.” And because those municipalities receive little or no increased tax revenue from the activity, PSATS is recommending that an impact fee on natural gas extraction be levied. The possibility of an impact fee or severance tax has been the subject of debate in the Pennsylvania General Assembly for some time (see Shale Daily, June 15; April 29; April 19; Oct. 22, 2010).

The 30-member Commission, which Corbett formed earlier this year, is scheduled to report back to the governor next month (see Shale Daily, March 9).