When a new year begins, it’s a time for many people to reflect on their successes and failures in the prior year. Our government should be doing the same thing at the start of 2020, and it should start by evaluating its actions (and failures to act) to regulate the shale gas industry.
On Nov. 22, the Pennsylvania Department of Health finally authorized a study to investigate if shale gas operations have raised the risk of childhood cancers and other health risks in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
And on Nov. 18, I had traveled to Harrisburg with Washington County families affected by Ewing sarcoma to ask Gov. Tom Wolf to suspend permitting of oil and gas drilling activities until rigorous scientific research shows that shale gas operations are not related to the current rate of childhood cancers in the area. Over the past few years, I have had to watch my classmates from Canon-McMillan battle Ewing sarcoma and other rare cancers.
Standing in front of Wolf’s office I found myself thinking: Why have our state and local politicians failed to protect us, and why does it seem they put the interests of industry over the health of their constituents?
The answer appears if you follow the money.
Between 2017 and 2018 my state representative, Tim O’Neal of Washington County, received about $19,000 from the oil and gas industry/interest groups, making him the ninth top oil and gas funded candidate in Pennsylvania. Not coincidentally, his voting record shows consistent support for deregulation of the oil and gas industry. Supporting policies that benefit these companies sure would make it a lot easier to get a comfy job in the energy industry after you finish your career in public service.
However, this is not just about one state representative. Many politicians in this area are inextricably tied to the oil and gas industry. Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to protect us and our community. On Nov. 12, the Associated Press reported that Wolf is being investigated by the FBI with allegations of illegally pushing Mariner East natural gas liquids pipeline permits. Wolf received $149,500 from the oil and gas industry between 2017 and 2018.
Although this important study on shale gas and childhood cancer was finally authorized, politicians like O’Neal and Wolf do not deserve a pat on the back. Shale gas operations should have gone through rigorous scientific testing to show that there would be no major health effects before the gold-rush-style fracking boom ever occurred in this area.
The only reason that the state finally decided to act was because the detrimental effects of fracking on my community’s health are now too glaring to ignore. Only through the hard work of local families and organizations pushing back against the “everything’s-a-OK” narrative of the state government and industry did we finally get the study we deserved a decade ago.
It is not in the interest of the oil and gas industry to tell the public what contaminants are poisoning our water and air thanks to their drilling. That’s why the compounds used in fracking are considered “trade secrets.” That’s why inquiries about the radioactive compounds in their waste, now in our drinking water, are being pushed under the rug. This is the air I breathe, this is the water I drink, and these are my peers who are dying, all at the hands of a ruthless industry and a government who protects profits, not people.
In 2020, I hope our elected representatives will stand for the well-being of our community and not just the interests of the oil and gas industry. If there is nothing to hide, they should support holding the oil and gas industry accountable by making their chemicals and waste transparent in public right-to-know filings. Elected officials should represent people, not the companies who are able to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.
I hope in the new year families will not have to beg the government to protect our public health while our local representatives fail to act.
Kristen Locy is a 2014 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School and is an intern at the Center for Coalfield Justice.