PA Health Dept. employees say they were silenced on natural gas industry issues

Matt Richmond
June 19, 2014

Two retirees from the Pennsylvania Department of Health say its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.

The two former employees – a community health nurse and a staffer in the Bureau of Epidemiology – say that staff at state health centers and district offices were instructed not to return calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development.

The nurse, Tammi Stuck, says in 2011 she received a list of “buzzwords” such as "drilling," "gas," and "fracking." If a caller said one of those words, Stuck says she was told to take a name and number and pass that information on to a supervisor.

Stuck says she never knew whether names she passed along received callbacks. She says some people would call back to the Fayette County office where she worked, frustrated that they'd not been contacted.

The epidemiology staffer, Marshall Deasy, said other nurses told him they'd received similar instructions.

Neither former employee would talk to StateImpact Pennsylvania on tape, but both were willing to put their names behind their statements.

Aimee Tysarcyzk, speaking for the state Department of Health, denied that employees were told not to return calls or that a list of “buzzwords” was circulated. She says complaints related to drilling are sent to the Bureau of Epidemiology.

Since 2011, the agency has logged 51 complaints, but has found no link between drilling and illness.

Doctors say that some people who live near natural gas development sites have suffered from skin rashes, nausea, nosebleeds and other ailments. Some residents believe their ill health is linked to drilling, but doctors say they simply don’t have the data or research – from the state or other sources – to confirm that.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein faults the Corbett administration for not giving the Department of Health a bigger role in overseeing the state’s growing natural gas industry.

“I think notable the Marcellus Shale bill that we have, our Act 13 the bill provides an impact fee, $200 million a year roughly comes from that impact fee, gets divided among 17 state agencies, sub-agencies, the Fish and Boat Commission. Not one penny goes to the Department of Health," says Goldstein. "The only way that you would not give a penny to the Department of Health from the impact fee is if you are absolutely certain that there was no health effects of the Marcellus Shale drilling.”

The Corbett administration declined to comment.

The two former employees also say that staff was told it needed to seek permission to attend any meetings outside the department. This directive came, Deasy says, after a department consultant made comments about drilling at a community meeting that upset higher-level officials in Harrisburg.

Spokesperson Tysarczyk says it's reasonable for a state agency to check on what its staff is doing and saying in public settings.

This story comes from StateImpact, an NPR reporting project examining how state policy affects communities. See more stories on energy and the environment at StateImpact.npr.org.