Takeaways from the 2019 Shale & Public Health Conference

On Tuesday, I attended the 7th annual Shale & Public Health Conference at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Just one day before, my colleagues at the Center for Coalfield Justice had gone to Harrisburg along with people whose health, or the health of their loved ones, has been directly impacted by oil and gas activity. The purpose of their trip was to urge Governor Wolf and state legislators to take seriously the health impacts of fracking and to implore the Department of Health to conduct an investigation into the environmental factors of cancer prevalence in our region.* Before the conference, I knew that the story of our trip to Harrisburg had received press coverage in over 100 cities in the United States and Canada, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and ABC World News.

The research that was presented at the 2019 Shale & Public Health Conference includes the following:

It is astounding to me that one of the main takeaways from eight hours of talks (at a conference in its 7th year) was that we already know without a doubt that hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking” and “unconventional gas development”) has various negative health impacts on the human body, including unborn fetuses. (We also know that fracking negatively impacts our environment in many ways, which also directly affects us, but that will be the subject of another blog.) So, sadly, what is or is not done about fracking is not actually about evidence; it’s about something else entirely. Brian Schwartz said that day that “The lack of policy action has nothing to do with the scientific evidence. The evidence is there. It’s just about whether we have the will to change policy or not.” After many years of research, he is also finally prepared to assert, from an informed scientific perspective, that “…we should stop fracking – everywhere.”

The second thing that was very obvious during the conference was the lack of an environmental justice perspective. During a panel discussion on science and policy, Scott Perry (Deputy Secretary of the Office of Oil and Gas Management at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) denied that groundwater is negatively impacted by fracking, a statement that was met with disbelief and consternation by several in the audience – especially considering that just two hours before, Nicole Deziel had discussed this very thing. He also focused on consumer choice as the arbiter of fossil fuel extraction, variously stating that people have a choice of whether or not they use fossil fuels, a choice of where their electricity comes from, and a choice of where they live. Several in the audience took issue with these statements, pointing out that they revealed a lack of awareness of environmental justice issues: Many people cannot avoid using fossil fuels, move away from pollution, or afford to choose more expensive forms of electricity. 

At the end of the day, Michael McCawley retook the mic to remind us that we all do, however, have the power of our vote, and that we need to use it (and use it wisely). 

I am a trained researcher, and believe wholeheartedly in an unbiased and disinterested scientific research process. My mistake is believing that solid research would be allowed to inform public policy in order to legislate what is best for us. Elected officials welcome extractive industries in the name of economic growth, say they are waiting for evidence of harm (that already exists), and all the while residents are suffering from the negative public and environmental health effects of industry. The benefits of economic jobs for a few does not trickle down to the rest of us. The “jobs” tome is getting a little old: The picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about the systems-level perspective and public and environmental health. 

Bobby Zirkin, a Maryland state senator who was the lead sponsor of the bill that banned fracking in Maryland, also a panelist at the Shale & Public Health Conference, said that in a bipartisan effort, the state considered the public health studies before adopting its shale gas drilling ban. “We spent years listening to the studies and the claims of potential health effects. And we know about the economic benefits,” Mr. Zirkin said. “But our job as a state is not to put our people at risk.”

Another important but missing link in our ability to have policy and legislators who work for us is an informed and engaged citizenry. I have witnessed over the last three years that the truth, facts, reality, proof, do not sway the opinions or actions of some people. Also, unfortunately, many people will not care until they are directly affected in a negative way. 

I am proud to work for an organization that is striving to fill the void, that gap between research and policy. What lies in that gap is informed and engaged citizens and environmental justice. We are working hard to educate, empower, and organize the residents of Washington and Greene Counties. Please join us; we’ll be glad to have you. Let’s drum up the will and determination to work together for our common future.

*This trip was sponsored by Representative Sarah Innamoroto and Senator Katie Muth and coordinated by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Better Path Coalition


  • Lisa (Coffield) DePaoli joined the CCJ staff as Outreach Coordinator in December 2018 and moved into the role of Communications Manager in 2020. She grew up in rural Washington County, has family in both Washington and Greene Counties, and has always loved animals and spending time outdoors. A first-generation and nontraditional college student, her deep interest in human beings and ecology led her to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. She has worked on research projects and taught at the university level in the U.S. and in field schools in Latin America. The knowledge and experience she gained increased her concern for environmental and social justice issues, which she believes are best addressed at the local level, or from the "bottom up." Lisa works to understand issues from the local to the global, seeks to make a positive difference, and loves to talk to people about what interests or concerns them. In her free time, she enjoys reading, spending time with her family, furkids, and friends, and walking in the woods with her dogs.

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