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UM study warns of health impacts from fracking

A University of Maryland study warns that without adequate safeguards, drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing could harm the health of residents, workers and communities in Western Maryland.

The study, released Monday, raises the stakes for a long-running state review of safeguards needed before gas extraction can proceed using fracturing. Also known as "fracking," the technique pumps large quantities of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free up natural gas trapped in rocks.

Produced by the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, part of the university's public health school, the study foresees a "high likelihood" of gas development causing air pollution that could harm nearby residents as well as drilling crews. It also warns of strains on the health care system in Garrett and Allegany counties and increases in crime, drug abuse, traffic accidents and other social problems from the influx of gas industry workers.

The study further predicts "moderately high" likelihood of problems with water, soil and noise pollution from fracking.

The report's authors say they aren't necessarily predicting all those problems will develop in Maryland, as they expect regulation to be stricter than in other states where fracking has occurred. But they urge state officials to address all the potential impacts before deciding to allow drilling.

The UM report, commissioned by the Maryland Department of the Environment and state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, offers 52 recommendations for assessing and offsetting potential impacts. It urges that drilling companies be required to disclose all chemicals used in fracking, calls for restricting injection of wastewater into the ground and proposes more study of how far drilling should be from homes.

State officials say many of the recommendations mirror those in a report released last month cataloging "best practices" that drilling companies have adopted or been required to follow in other states. State officials say they'll take public comment on the UM report until Oct. 3 and review it in consultation with an advisory commission named three years ago by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The panel, which met again Monday in Frostburg, is expected to issue its final report this fall. The state has been under a de facto drilling moratorium during the review.

Rebecca Ruggles, director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, said the report leaves unanswered a number of questions that have been raised about potential health and safety problems. She called on the state to continue research before deciding whether to permit drilling in the state.

"If Maryland decides to allow hydraulic fracturing, this report places a heavy burden on the state to demonstrate that it can adequately address these health concerns," said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said the UM report did not appear to take into account recent changes in state regulations and industry practices in assessing health risks.

And Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for the industry group Energy in Depth, said that regulators in other states have looked into and discounted the threat of air pollution from drilling.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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