By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- A draft assessment prepared by the state last year found New York's proposed requirements for hydraulic fracturing would likely prevent or reduce the risk of impact on human health.
The draft, written in early 2012 and recently obtained by Gannett's Albany Bureau, offers a glimpse at the state's behind-the-scenes review of hydrofracking's health effects. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday dismissed the assessment as outdated and no longer relevant.
The eight-page document, which has not been publicly released, largely serves as a broad summary of steps the state would take to prevent negative effects on health.
But it also draws conclusions. Potential health risks from air emissions, water contamination and radioactive materials unearthed during drilling would likely be preventable with the state's proposed guidelines and regulations, according to the document.
"Therefore, significant adverse human health impacts from air emissions associated with (high-volume fracking) operations are unlikely," the assessment reads.
Emily DeSantis, the DEC spokeswoman, called the document an "old summary" and said it "does not reflect final DEC policy."
The assessment is written as an added section to the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a review first launched by the DEC in 2008. No permits for large-scale hydrofracking can be issued in New York until that review is finalized.
"The final SGEIS will reflect the review currently underway by (the Department of Health) and its outside experts," DeSantis said in a statement. "No conclusions should be drawn from this partial, outdated summary."
DeSantis said the outside consultants are "reviewing the entire draft SGEIS" and not the document obtained by Gannett.
The DEC has faced significant criticism from environmental and medical organizations for not doing more to assess the health impacts of fracking. The draft assessment was written by the Department of Health and DEC after the agency was inundated with 80,000 submissions during a pair of public-comment sessions on drafts of the SGEIS.
Many of those comments were critical of the state for not doing more to look at the potential impacts that fracking could have on the health of those living near drilling rigs.
After being told about passages from the draft document, environmentalists panned its conclusions.
"The position that the impacts of fracking can be regulated to 'below levels of significant health concern' is pure fantasy and it is understandable why (Gov. Andrew Cuomo) did not press forward with these baseless conclusions last year," said Roger Downs, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.
The health document summarizes various efforts to prevent or limit health impacts, pointing to sections of the SGEIS analyzing potential pathways to water and air contamination as well as various requirements limiting where drilling pads can be cited. The DEC, however, has not released a public draft of the SGEIS since 2011, before the health assessment was written.
Gas companies have pushed the state to allow high-volume fracking, saying the industry has the potential to boost struggling economies in the Southern Tier, which sits on the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formations. Environmental groups have concerns about its impact on land, air and water.
In September, the DEC announced it would have state Health Commissioner Nirav Shah review the state's hydrofracking proposals to ensure they protect human health. In November, the state unveiled the names of three academic health experts who would assist Shah in reviewing the SGEIS.
Critics of fracking have knocked the DEC, in part because the agency has declined to publicly release the parameters of the health review. Two of the three outside experts assisting in the review have clauses in their contracts preventing them from releasing the material they are looking over.
Shah on Wednesday declined to discuss the ongoing review.
"It's a work in progress," he said after a cabinet meeting at the Capitol. "There's going to be full sharing when it's done."
Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program director for Environmental Advocates of New York, said the state should release what the experts are being asked to review.
"All we have is this supposedly dated document of draft language that dismisses health impacts and states that New York is already addressing them through various mitigation measures," Nadeau said. "And that just isn't enough."