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Gas field illnesses probed

Brendan Gibbons | The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

Environmental groups are rounding up stories of sickness in the shale fields, following reports of inaction by the state Department of Health.

Food & Water Watch and Berks Gas Truth, both opposed to gas development, gathered stories from 11 people living or working near gas wells who complained of a variety of health problems. Sore throats, skin rashes, headaches and nosebleeds were most common.

In mid-June and early July, NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania reported on former health department workers who said their superiors told them not to respond to health inquiries related to gas drilling. An employee provided an email containing a list of buzzwords health employees were not allowed to follow up on, including “Marcellus Shale,” “frack chemicals” and “natural gas.”

A former community health nurse told StateImpact her supervisor instructed her to pass inquiries on the topics to the Bureau of Epidemiology and not follow up on them herself.

Following up on these reports, the environmental groups sought stories from those who say the state spurned their requests.

The groups contacted the state attorney general’s office last week, Food & Water Watch organizer Sam Bernhardt said. On Tuesday, he received a response from an agent with the office’s environmental crimes unit asking for contact information for affected residents.

The Attorney General’s office would not comment on the email.

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The email came in the middle of a conference call with two residents living in gas development zones and one former industry worker who shared their experiences with the health department.

They, along with most of the people who gave permission to share their contact information, have made headlines for their opposition to the industry.

Pam Judy, a Carmichaels, Greene County, resident who said she lives 780 feet from a compressor station, said she contacted the state and Allegheny County health departments to complain of constant fatigue, headache, sore throat and mouth ulcers.

Neither health department gave her any answers or referred her elsewhere, she said.

She did her own research, which led her to former Dish, Texas, mayor Calvin Tillman, who moved out of the heavily drilled town after fears that air emissions were harming his sons.

“I should not have needed to seek the information I needed outside my state,” Ms. Judy said. “I truly believe there has been a cover-up on the part of the Department of Health to not log these calls.”

Randy Moyer, a Portage, Cambria County resident, used to haul water for the industry. After he developed broad skin rashes, migraines, dizziness, tinnitus, sore throat and other symptoms, Mr. Moyer said he made six attempts to get answers from the state health department’s Harrisburg office.

“I was searching for information,” he said. “Up in Harrisburg, I couldn’t get none.”

His attorney eventually led him to the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which listens to resident complaints of oil and gas-related health problems.

Craig Stevens, a Silver Lake Twp., Susquehanna County resident who frequently advocates against drilling, said the health department never followed up on his complaints of nosebleeds and other health problems.

The groups are seeking input from other residents who experienced similar issues. An online form is available at foodandwaterwatch.org/news. A hot line is also available at 717-467-3641.

Contact the writer: bgibbons@timesshamrock.com, @bgibbonsTT on Twitter