Recent research and events have called into question how effectively the federal government (through the EPA and DOH) and the various state environmental protection and health agencies (the DEC and DOH in NY) are handling their responsibilities to keep the environment and the population safe and healthy. This is shown in relation to shale gas by the agencies both not gathering data that would show a need to intervene, and also by recording incidents, but not following up on potential environmental or human health impacts in the area of the incident. In states like Pennsylvania, regulators may also have few enforcement options, instead making recommendations after incidents that gas companies are free to ignore.
On the federal level, there is political pressure exerted to limit the influence the EPA has in the ordinary conduct of the nation’s business. In campaign debate, there is the open suggestion that the agency might be eliminated if particular candidates were elected. Whistleblowers document that they were curtailed in their investigations due to political pressure on administrators.
At the state level, the combination of persistent staff cutbacks and increasing complexity of technology involved in resource extraction make it a real challenge for the state agencies to keep up. In New York, we also face an environmental protection agency which, in the case of mineral resource extraction, has the odd and internally inconsistent role of both protecting the environment and maximizing mineral recovery.
Sometimes, it has taken the persistent attempts of advocacy groups to get information about oil and gas companies out in the open– especially information about discharges, accidents and spills. The public has to rely on advocates to pry such information from DEC as that fracking “brine” has been used as a substitute for road salt, and where it was so used.
The general level of trust in these governmental watchdogs has gone down in some quarters, particularly in regard to the health impacts associated with fracking. Independent health study results may measure health impacts that federal and state governmental agencies seemed willing to ignore.
Is it, therefore, any wonder that, when odd symptoms start to surface in the student population of a school with six gas wells on the school property, people begin to doubt whether or not the agencies charged with considering whether or not there is an environmental condition that impacts student health are doing an adequate job? Many seem convinced that fracking played a part in the LeRoy Middle and High School epidemic of Tourette’s Syndrome-like symptoms. The school district is providing some information, but not allowing independent third parties to take soil or air samples. The location of the plume from an accident near another drill site a few miles away is an issue– and they provide a map of the plume and where the new monitoring wells are to be located. Another issue is the brine spill recorded on school grounds just a month and a half before students began to exhibit the unusual tics and outbursts– and that seems to have killed a number of trees on school grounds.
It is difficult to make a decisive statement about the causes of the students’ symptoms without more information than has been made public to date. However, the fact that the DEC, EPA and NY DOH have all looked at the situation is not appearing to give many people a secure feeling about it. There is a nagging sense that our public watchdogs may not be robust enough to tackle the task of protecting us.