Gas well setbacks questioned after health impact study

AP file photo In this file photo, the flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania flies on the drilling rig as work continues at a shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary’s, Pa.

Regulations that dictate appropriate setbacks for natural gas wells from drinking water sources and buildings may not be generous enough, according to the state’s agency tasked with overseeing the industry.

The Department of Environmental Protection said it would support efforts to reconsider whether 1,000 feet constitutes a safe distance after a study from the University of Pittsburgh suggested links between unconventional wells and incidences of asthma and childhood cancer.

“Whether it’s research, impact analysis, or regulatory action, we have worked to protect the public with regards to the oil and gas industry,” said department Secretary Rich Negrin. “These studies further strengthen our ongoing resolve to ensure that public health is prioritized and that we remain ahead of potential issues.”

The results, published last week, found that children living within 1 mile of a gas well had a chance of developing lymphoma five to seven times greater than others residing up to 5 miles away. Researchers found no connection between drilling operations and childhood leukemia, brain and bone cancers, however.

Other data linked the exasperation of asthma to the production phase of development and concluded that those living near wells had an increased risk of experiencing an asthma attack. No such correlation was noted during the other phases – including preparation, drilling or hydraulic fracturing.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition said this finding made little sense, because production is “by far the least emissions-intense in the development phase, and actual air monitoring in western Pennsylvania shows air quality is far below designated health-protective levels.”

“The asthma methodology is troubling, as it simply reproduces previously flawed studies and relies on faulty metrics rather than actual emissions and exposure data,” said David Callahan, the coalition’s president.

The coalition said the study’s use of a “poorly designed” and “discredited model” taints the findings as a whole. Using “well activity” as a metric, the group said, doesn’t use actual air measurements, but rather “assumes all wells in the state contribute to the exposure of all residents in the state, as opposed to those living near wells.”

“All of the studies, in fact, failed to adequately consider other critical causational factors that may have affected the findings,” Callahan said.

It’s not the first time the administration said it supports expanded setbacks. The latest study came after a scathing 2020 grand jury report accused state officials of prioritizing industry profits over public health in southwestern Pennsylvania. One of the recommendations said the state should change the regulation, as well as force companies to disclose chemicals used in their operations.

At the time, the coalition said Act 13 of 2012 satisfied many of the concerns brought up by the grand jury, including expanding the distance a well can be constructed from 300 feet to 1,000 feet – the second most generous in the country and widely endorsed and accepted by the industry and environmental groups alike.

Prior proposals to push the setback to 2,500 feet have been viewed as an attack on future development. Environmental researchers, however, said that no-drill zones should be at least 3,281 feet away from drinking water sources and buildings to reduce exposure to dangerous emissions.

The Department of Health said, in light of the latest study, it will prioritize educational programs for medical professionals and school districts alike, as well as create an online filing system for residents lodging complaints against drilling operations.

“The Shapiro administration is committed to protecting Pennsylvanians’ health and safety, and we are already working to develop concrete plans to address the potential health risks identified in these studies and ensure every concern is heard,” said Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Debra Bogen. “These studies help advance our understanding of the potential health impacts from hydraulic fracturing operations, and we are taking action to improve the health and safety of residents.”


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