By Jon Campbell and Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- New York Health Commissioner Nirav Shah broke his silence on the state's review of the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, telling a panel of lawmakers Wednesday he anticipates completing the analysis in "the next few weeks."
During a legislative budget hearing on public health and Medicaid spending, state lawmakers pressed Shah for details on when the department's findings would be public.
Shah first began his review in September at the request of the Department of Environmental Conservation, which itself has been reviewing the environmental effects of fracking since 2008. But little about the review has been revealed, and Shah had previously declined to discuss it while the analysis was in progress.
Asked by Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, about the state of the review, Shah said "the vast majority of the material for our review, the health review, is available on the Internet at the DEC website." He said the review wouldn't be made public until the work of three outside consultants, who were hired to assist with the review, was complete.
"Our goal is to remain independent -- leave the experts alone, without outside influence, so they can do the deliberation and make their recommendations," Shah said, "and then, certainly, open it up."
Lawmakers pushed Shah to pledge he would recommend the state schedule a public comment period after the review is released, but Shah said it was not his decision.
Sen. Diane Savino, D-Brooklyn, pressed further: "So we can trust that you will actually share (the review), and that public conversation will begin anew, I assume?"
"I will give all that I have to you," Shah responded, soliciting laughter from the crowd.
He continued: "This evidence-based, science-informed review will be made public, as part of all of the other documents, within a few weeks, and then, of course, people can comment on whatever they want to comment on."
When one assemblyman characterized Shah's review as a "study," Shah pushed back.
"It's actually not a health study," he said. "It's very specifically not a study." Instead, he said, it's a review of the DEC's Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement -- a lengthy, yet-to-be-finalized environmental assessment -- and whether the agency's proposals are enough to protect public health.
"There's two charges to the review," Shah said. "One is looking at any mitigation of any public-health effects and the other is surveillance."
A draft of the SGEIS was last released in August 2011. A final version must be made public for 10 days before any final decisions on whether to allow large-scale fracking are made, while the DEC faces a Feb. 27 deadline to finalize a set of proposed drilling rules or allow them to expire.
John Krohn, a spokesman for gas-industry-backed group Energy in Depth, said news that the health review would soon be completed is "welcome news."
"We are confident that absent political decision-making it will note the opinions already shared by two agencies of New York's government: That hydraulic fracturing can proceed safely in New York," Krohn said in a statement.
Kathleen Nolan, a regional director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, a group opposed to hydrofracking, criticized the state for not doing more to assess the impacts of fracking.
"Commissioner Shah's admission that the DOH is not doing a health study, but merely a health review is unconscionable," she said in a statement Wednesday.
A group of fracking protesters wearing lab coats and medical face masks, some with red tape over their mouths, sat silently in the hearing room during Shah's testimony. They held signs saying, "Ban fracking now," and "Show the science."
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, questioned whether Shah's "surveillance" duty would include protecting consumers from contaminated food, such as meat from livestock sickened by chemicals.
"My review is related to just the public health aspect -- that does not include food," Shah said. Groans were heard throughout the hearing room.
Krueger pushed back, asking Shah to agree that food contamination is a public health issue.
Shah agreed, arguing that the experts enlisted by the state for the review will ensure it is comprehensive.
"I was not a hydrofracking expert when this started, and I don't claim to be today, but I have learned a lot, and I understand that there is a lot of evidence," Shah said. "But there are also places where we don't have as much evidence as we need, so our goal is to the engage the experts that help guide us on what is the state of the science, where are there holes, if any, and what are the next steps."