February 22, 2012; Source: CBS News

The nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has opened a branch in western Pennsylvania to assist people “who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.” The nonprofit is funded by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Claneil Foundation. Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale has been subject to hydraulic fracturing—or “hydrofracking”—which some advocates say has damaged the water supply and contributed to other health concerns in the state, where methane gas has been found in water wells. The contamination has been so bad in some areas that residents have been able to light their tap water on fire.

The Health Project’s primary impetus is not to conduct needed geological research to further explore questions concerning possible hydrofracking pollution. Rather, the group is conducting a more indirect epidemiological investigation, assessing the controversial drilling process’s health effects on populations inside the boundaries of the Marcellus Shale region. Playing the “we live here, too” card, a drilling industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, expressed support for the nonprofit and for “objective, fact-based research” in general.

“The state lacks enough resources to really address this,” according to Health Project Director Raina Rippel. “There is this gaping hole for the community.”

Rippel concedes, however, that it is challenging to discern whether residents’ medical problems are related to the intensive natural gas drilling of the last five years. And with oil and coal exploration occurring in the surrounding areas, some have argued that any one or more of these energy industries could be sources of the methane gas found in water wells.

As hydrofracking remains a relatively new practice, local pediatrician Dr. Helen Podgainy says she doesn’t know “what we should be on the lookout for,” but she doesn’t want her young patients to serve as “the canaries in the coal mine,” or, in this case, as canaries in the shale. –Louis Altman