(NaturalNews) An agency whose self-proclaimed mission is to protect citizens from serious illness, injuries and death has failed Pennsylvania residents living near the Marcellus Shale region.
The Marcellus Shale, a region containing more than 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, is expected to be the next site of economic growth in the oil and gas industry. This natural geological formation covers 104,000 square miles across four states and is made up of 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock buried beneath the earth's surface.
The natural gas located 6,000 to 8,000 ft. beneath the earth's surface was created over millions of years as a byproduct of decomposing organisms that lived in the water and were buried under ocean or river sediments.
Until recently, the natural gas within the Marcellus Shale was unreachable, but technology has changed that. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the "process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside."
The ability to tap into the Marcellus Shale, despite health and environmental affects, provides valuable economic opportunity, which may explain why the Pennsylvania Department of Health acted the way they did.
StateImpact Pennsylvania, a project by National Public Radio aimed at reporting on the fiscal and environmental impact of the state's booming energy economy, disclosed the story of two former health department employees who claim that they were told to keep quiet on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.
Two retired department employees have blown the whistle on the agency's attempts to ignore concerns and complaints from the public regarding natural gas development in the region. They also allege that the agency required employees to get permission before attending any meetings outside of the department.
Tammi Stuck, a former community health nurse of 36 years in Fayette County, said she was not allowed to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns stemming from drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
"We were absolutely not allowed to talk to them," said Stuck.
Another retired employee, Marshall P. Deasy III, who formerly worked as specialist with the Bureau of Epidemiology investigating foodborne and waterborne outbreaks, confirmed Stuck's allegations. Throughout his 20 years at the department, Deasy said he was never before asked to keep quiet on any topics.
After a consultant working for the department issued comments about the subject of gas drilling at a community meeting, the agency instituted a new policy which required employees to get permission to attend any meetings on any topics from the office of the director of the Bureau of Community Health in Harrisburg.
"There was a form that had to be filled out at least a month ahead of time," Stuck said.
Abort conversation if you hear these code words
Back in 2011, Stuck said she received a piece of paper from the Department of Health with a list of "buzzwords," instructing employees to end conversations with the public that included words like "fracking, gas" and "soil contamination."
The caller's information was then to be taken down and forwarded to a supervisor who was supposed to return their call and address any concerns, but Stuck said she's unsure if these callbacks ever occurred. Often, Stuck heard from the callers again, complaining that they had not heard back from anyone.
Aimee Tysarczyk, a spokeswoman for the department, denied allegations that employees were instructed not to return calls. According to Tysarczyk, all shale-gas-drilling-related calls are transferred to the Bureau of Epidemiology. She admitted that they had filed 51 complaints but found no correlation between "drilling and illness."
Employees working for other state health centers admitted to Stuck that they had also experienced the "buzzwords" memo and similar instructions on how to deal with "drilling-related calls."
Deasy added that nurses he worked with told him that they weren't allowed to respond to complaints about gas drilling, admitting that the subject of gas development was altogether considered "taboo" among fellow employees.
As reported by StateImpact, more than 6,000 wells have been drilled into Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale over the last six years, but no research has been funded "to examine the potential health impacts of the shale boom."