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Health, environmental groups seek fracking moratorium

Frack out: Health and environmental advocates seek moratorium on drilling for shale gas in western Maryland.

Public health and environmental advocates gathered in Annapolis Thursday to push for a long-term moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, arguing that more time is needed to look into health threats posed by the drilling process commonly called "fracking."

Regulations that would impose a variety of best practices and safeguards on drilling for shale gas were proposed in the final days of the O'Malley administration, and are out for public comment.

The rules were drawn up by the O'Malley administration as an advisory commission he appointed neared the end of a three-year study of fracking's risks. But critics, including some members of the advisory commission, contend the study gave short shrift to health concerns. 

Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, chief sponsor of a bill being introduced to bar fracking for eight years, said no drilliing should be allowed in western Maryland until more research can be done. The Montgomery County Democrat said he had visited northeastern Pennsylvania and spoken with three families there who told him their drinking-water wells had been fouled by drilling nearby.

"There are a lot of concerns that have not been fully studied," said Del. Clarence K. Lam, a Howard County Democrat and physician on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ann Bristow, a health educator from western Maryland who served on O"Malley's advisory commission, said the study only belatedly tackled fracking's health risks.

Bristow also said she was worried that intensive drilling in the rural, mountainous region could undermine an economy where tourism and outdoor recreation play a large role.  She noted that vacation homes built around Deep Creek Lake account for two-thirds of Garrett County's property tax revenues.

Opponents of fracking have unsuccessfully pressed for moratorium legislation before, and they face an added hurdle this year. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he believes fracking can be done safely and he believes it will help the western Maryland economy. The region's lawmakers also want to see drilling go ahead, with what they consider suitable regulations.

Fracking opponents say there are 40 House cosponsors for the moratorium bill and 10 in the Senate. That's well short of a majority in either chamber, much less one that could overcome a gubernatorial veto.  But advocates have written House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller seeking their support. Fraser-Hidalgo said he's hopeful more lawmakers will join him.

"This is such a complicated issue," he said. "One step at a time."

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