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The only safe fracking regulation is a ban

Op-ed: The only way to protect public health and safety in Maryland is to ban fracking in the 2017 legislative

On Tuesday, the General Assembly's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee will hold a hearing on regulations drafted by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that pave the way for the natural gas industry to access Maryland's natural resources locked into tight rock formations a mile or so underground. These regulations would permit drilling in all Maryland counties known to have gas deposits, including Garrett County (where I live) and neighboring Allegany County, which both overlie the Marcellus Shale. State regulators are heralding these as the most stringent regulations in the country.

Last month, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York released the 4th edition of their Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking. The report contains more than 200 studies published this year alone; its top finding is that growing evidence shows that regulations are incapable of preventing harm.

Whether Maryland's draft regulations are truly the most stringent is debatable, but it is also irrelevant. They fail to adequately protect public health and the environment, and that is all that matters. For example, these "most stringent" regulations loosen safeguards to protect our water with the unsubstantiated claim that adding more cement and steel will prevent groundwater contamination. In fact, all that we know about extra containment layers is that more cement will crack and more steel will corrode.

As a public health researcher who served on Gov. Martin O'Malley's commission on fracking, I have serious concerns about MDE's regulations because I know firsthand what has not been considered. In 2014, the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) issued a report showing that the likelihood of negative public health impacts was high or moderately high in seven of the eight categories analyzed, including air and water quality, and cumulative impacts. Nonetheless, public health recommendations made by MIAEH are largely ignored in these draft regulations.

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles assured citizens of Maryland that regulations for drilling would be based in science; however, these draft regulations fail to meet this promise. They go backward in time to a best management practices (BMP) report whose latest research citations were from 2012 and included only two public health studies. Furthermore, the goal for this report was to "identify and recommend specific BMPs that would provide maximum protection of Maryland's environment, natural resources and public safety." Public health is notably missing from the list to be protected.

When the temporary fracking moratorium became law in 2015, prohibiting fracking through October 2017, many health professionals were dismayed that the bill did not give the public health community or Maryland voters what they wanted — a moratorium that would provide sufficient time to study the long-term health effects of fracking. But in just the past year and half, a series of studies have come out of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health based on health data from Pennsylvania with alarming findings on shorter-term effects. Their research shows that residents living near the most dense and active drilling and fracking sites are more likely to have asthma exacerbations, premature births, high risk-pregnancies, migraine headaches, severe fatigue and chronic sinus and nasal infections.

There are now over 900 publications on the effects of fracking — on air, water, soil, animal and human health, earthquakes and on methane's contribution to climate disruption, another public health threat. Of the health studies in this body of work, 84 percent demonstrate clear associations between unconventional gas development and public health harms.

The more that people find out about fracking, the more they oppose it. Recent polling shows that nearly 60 percent of Marylanders support a ban on fracking. Maryland residents' vocal opposition includes Garrett County, where voters reject fracking at a 2 to 1 ratio and identify threats to water and health as their top concerns.

Despite the claims you might hear from MDE and the industry about these draft regulations, it is clear that they have little or nothing to do with protecting public health. When public health is in the driver's seat for fracking policy, no fracking is permitted, as witnessed in New York State in 2014. The only way to protect public health and safety in Maryland is to ban fracking in the 2017 legislative session.

Ann Bristow is an emeritus professor at Frostburg State University and commissioner with the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative; her email is piperannie@gmail.com.

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