Researchers: Gas industry secrecy obstructs public health

In a Pennsylvania court case over gas industry secrecy, a group of doctors, researchers and advocates filed April 30 to support newspapers seeking information about the health impacts of gas development.

It's the "tip of the iceberg," said Matthew Gerhart, staff attorney at the environmental nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, in a conference call after filing the amicus brief in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Western District.

"We filed an exhibit with our brief listing dozens of cases in which individuals allege that gas development has harmed their health," Gerhart said, "and in case after case, the industry's playbook is to limit disclosure of information through the use of protective orders and confidential settlements."

The initial case against four gas industry companies and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was brought by Stephanie and Chris Hallowich. After moving their family to a farm in Mount Pleasant, Pa., the Hallowiches became surrounded by gas wells on their property and gas processing facilities nearby.

The Hallowiches and their two children said they began experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and sore throats.

When contacting state regulators and nearby companies did not help, the family sued in 2010, settling with the companies in 2011 and abandoning their home. As a condition of the settlement, the Hallowiches signed a non-disclosure agreement.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa., are seeking to overturn the court order sealing the record in the case.

Represented by Earthjustice, a group of doctors, researchers and advocates filed an amicus brief April 30 supporting the newspapers.

The group includes Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility; Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy; individuals Bernard D. Goldstein, Walter Tsou, Jerome A. Paulson, William Rom, Mehernosh P. Khan, Sandra Steingraber, Simona Perry, Robert Oswald, Michelle Bamberger, Kathryn Vennie; and Earthworks.

They explained their action in the conference call that followed.

"People living in communities where the gas industry operates have important firsthand knowledge of the impacts of gas development. But time and again, these people are silenced by industry-mandated non-disclosure agreements in lawsuits as well as leases," said Simona Perry, a research scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "As their neighbors struggle to contend with these impacts, they are unable to share their knowledge. Whole communities are impacted as a result."

Non-disclosure agreements have been used in gas industry lawsuits in other states, the group said, supplying a chart of 27 cases in seven states — two of them in West Virginia.

Perry said she has also seen non-disclosure agreements that mineral owners were asked to sign when leasing their minerals to gas producers, preventing them from disclosing the terms of their leases or the facts in any incident that might follow.

These non-disclosure agreements come on top of a variety of oil and gas exemptions from reporting requirements at the federal level, conference call participants said — requirements other industries observe in compliance with the Resource and Recovery Act, the Toxics Release Inventory, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other laws.

Most recently, Pennsylvania's Act 13 that updated state oil and gas law in February limits the information doctors can share about health problems linked to gas development activities.

All of that obstructs the provision of individual and public health services, doctors participating in the call said.

"In order to treat patients exposed to toxins from gas development, doctors need access to a wide range of information," said Dr. Jerome Paulson of Children's National Medical Center. "The gas industry has information that could prove vital to our patients' health, and we are asking the court to make it available."

The ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber gave several examples in which patterns were discovered and illnesses finally treated due initially to doctors sharing information about their cases in the medical community.

"In Woburn, Mass. it was ministers talking with doctors talking with mothers of children with childhood leukemia that helped us understand the link between solvent exposure in drinking water wells and the risk of childhood leukemia," Steingraber said in one example.

Laws such as Act 13 prohibit these kinds of conversations, she said.

"What's happening now in Pennsylvania drags us back to a terrible past when cancer could only be thought of as a random tragedy and not as a result of specific exposures," she said.

The group would like to see the newspapers prevail in the Hallowich case and the court unseal the record, Gerhart said, and they would like that to send a message that these kinds of non-disclosure agreements and insistence on confidentiality will not be routine.

Briefings in the superior court end on May 22 and Gerhart expects a hearing will be scheduled for soon after.

This was re-posted from The State Journal - West Virginia's only Business Newspaper - By Pam Kasey see the entire post here.