Cumberland Times-News

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September 26, 2013

Local residents asked to participate in Marcellus health impact study

CUMBERLAND — If the state allows drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale, the health of residents, and the health care system, are bound to see changes, and local residents ae being asked to contribute their thoughts and ideas to a study.

About 30 people showed up at a meeting Tuesday at Frostburg State University to offer their perspective. Focus groups will be included in the study, with more information about those groups to be released soon, said Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland professor and one of the leaders of the study.

“We have a lot of notes taken last night,” Wilson said to members of the state Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission who met Wednesday at Allegany College of Maryland.

There are concerns out there, especially for those with health conditions.

Nadine Grabania has asthma.

“It scares the living daylights out of me that I could live near a compressor station,” said Grabania, who lives in an area where drilling would likely occur. Grabania is also married to one of the members of the advisory commission. Compressor stations are used to move gas from the well to pipelines and through pipelines.

The next meeting for public input on health issues is scheduled Oct. 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the auditorium of Garrett College in McHenry.

Marcellus shale formations throughout the eastern U.S. are believed to harbor large untapped natural gas resources. The shale is a sedimentary rock formation that extends underground through about 95,000 square miles in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

In Maryland, the shale formations are found only in Allegany and Garrett counties.

The study will look at the positive potential of gas development as well; for instance, more jobs could lead to more people covered by health insurance and more funding for local health organizations, Wilson said.

A website for the project is planned. The study will also look at social changes that might be brought about because of shale gas development. A phone survey is also planned. Graduate students will play a key role in the project, Wilson said.

“The boundaries of the study are broad,” said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director, Environmental Health Bureau, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a member of the commission. Mitchell said public input will be sought throughout the process.

Wilson said the study will nail down health baselines in the community so that it can be a measuring stick for health changes should shale gas development occur. One question that will be asked is whether the community has the resources to deal with an emergency potentially caused by gas drilling, Wilson said.

The important health issues might not always be obvious but the need for water is clear. Garrett County has 14,000 households on well water, officials said, so keeping that water safe is critical. Other issues for baseline examination and monitoring would be to gauge the impact of transient workers, crime, stress, domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases, all issues that are associated with development of any kind, which changes population dynamics.

All of those impacts have been observed to one degree or another in communities where drilling is taking place. On the positive side, those communities have also seen increases in their tax base and funds available for community projects, officials said.

Wilson said it is clear that Western Maryland needs new industry and jobs.

The state health department is overseeing the study, which will be performed by the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health.

Using money from the state that became available in April, the Maryland Department of the Environment asked DHMH to engage experts to prepare a public health report and oversee the work. The Institute for Applied Environmental Health agreed to prepare the report.  This effort is part of the study that MDE and the Department of Natural Resources, in consultation with an advisory commission, are conducting as part of the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative.

 The institute is directed by Dr. Donald Milton, an internationally recognized expert in occupational and environmental medicine with extensive experience leading large collaborative research projects. The project team also includes experts in toxicology, public health, epidemiology, anthropology and environmental justice.

 The health report is scheduled to be presented in its final version to the state in summer 2014. Mitchell admitted there is a tension between the broad scope of the health study and getting the work done.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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