Pittsburgh Hospital Groups Promote Fracked Gas Despite Known Health Risks

On Friday morning, January 20, 2023, PA Senate Republicans held a mostly one-sided, pro-fracking, “public hearing” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

David Hess of the PA Environment Digest Blog, filed a report on the meeting here: Natural Gas Industry, Senate Republicans Launch Effort To Unleash The Industry, Reduce Regulation, Call For Automatic Approval Of Permits, Limit Public Comments

If his headline doesn’t grab your attention, it should!

“Limit public comments?” and “Reduce Regulation??”

While we’ve seen Senator Gene Yaw up to some of these same old tricks in years past, what really grabbed my attention was that his political group was able to recruit two major Pittsburgh health care networks, to help promote his fracked gas agenda.

Allegheny Health Network (AHN) and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) offered testimony at the hearing.

As you will see from their testimony, they base their corporate support primarily on hospital operating costs, due to skyrocketing commodity prices over the past 18 months, as detailed in my blog, “The Sky is Falling.” Their only testimony that did touch on public wellbeing, neglected to mention all the adverse health effects that come along with drilling and fracking, like those revealed in one of Yale’s latest studies, Proximity to fracking sites associated with risk of childhood cancer.

“Fuel poverty and cold homes exacerbate circulatory, respiratory, and mental health problems across all age groups. The worsening cost-of-living crisis is not felt equally across society. For the most vulnerable, if not prevented, a cold, damp environment can be deadly.”

Chuck DiBello, vice president of facilities and real estate for the Allegheny Health Network (Source)

Canonsburg Hospital is part of the Allegheny Health Network, and located close to an area with a Ewing Sarcoma cancer cluster that many believe is linked to shale gas production activities.

Mr. DiBello, of AHN, must have missed the recent comments by the Chesapeake Energy CEO, encouraging the gas production industry to cut production levels, so gas prices can increase. The same day Mr. DiBello testified in front of Yaw’s committee, natural gas commodity prices had actually plummeted to $3.13, from price peaks close to $10 during 2022.

The industry enjoyed profiting from those outrageous price peaks (which raised electricity and home heating costs) mostly brought on by European demand for more exported LNG. Recent warm winter weather, and the ongoing closure of a major LNG export hub, have caused those commodity prices to plummet.

The relatively nascent shale gas industry is no stranger to boom-bust cycles, having severely gutted their ranks in the not-too-distant past. We’ve also seen how fast production declines from Marcellus shale wells, along with poor industry economics.

“Inflationary pressure on operating expenses and the burden of carrying significant fixed costs only exacerbate the financial challenges ahead… Any rate increases for utility costs would represent significant hardship for Health Systems to manage, and one that we collectively have little agency to help improve.”

John P. Krolicki, vice president, Facilities and Support Services – UPMC (Source)

While most businesses have suffered from the pandemic, Mr. Krolicki’s comments relate mostly to runaway utility costs created by global markets. Ironically, the same day he testified, those commodity prices had plummeted to their lowest level since May 2021. What he might have missed along the way, is that ‘unleashing the industry’ will not only exacerbate health problems and health care costs in western Pennsylvania, but also support more LNG exports, which have been shown to increase local methane gas prices, not reduce them. January 20, 2023 chart:

Meantime, other health groups, and scores of doctors, have provided testimony over the years, describing what drilling and hydraulic fracturing have already meant to the health of families living nearby. You will find dozens of peer-reviewed health studies in the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking and Associated Gas and Oil Infrastructure.

The details in the UPMC press release below don’t seem to jive with UPMC’s apparent support for ‘unleashing’ the shale gas industry in western Pennsylvania, especially with reduced regulation and the industry’s climate change footprint, especially with methane emissions. National Geographic story: Fracking boom tied to methane spike in Earth’s atmosphere

UPMC Announces Leadership for Its Environmental Sustainability Efforts
September 2, 2022 – Looking to change lives in another way by amplifying its efforts to combat climate change and reduce our overall environmental impact under the leadership of two well-known leaders at UPMC — John Krolicki, vice president, Facilities and Support Services, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside and UPMC Children’s Hospital, will also become chief administrative sustainability officer…

Inside Life Changing Medicine | UPMC Staff Report

There are other places UPMC could reduce costs…

Key financial details about UPMC Group for the year ending June 30, 2018:
Expenses totaled $12.9 billon (not including $400 million in depreciation), with the 4 largest expenses being compensation ($5.6 billion), medical expenses ($3.7 billion), other expenses ($1.3 billion), and drugs and supplies ($1.2 billion).
34 individuals received compensation of $1 to $8.5 million for the year ending June 30, 2018 and UPMC Group had $5.7 billion in net assets at year-end.

Paddock Post | Executive Compensation at UPMC Pittsburgh, PA | February 2, 2021

Mayor Gainey plans audit of Pittsburgh organizations claiming tax exemptions under charitable status
January 24, 2023
– Mr. Gainey said it’s estimated that $36 million is owed in property taxes by charitable organizations in the city if they fail the Pennsylvania public charity test. Over the past few administrations, Pittsburgh leaders have struggled with ways to increase financial contributions from some of the massive institutions such as universities and health systems that are major employers and economic drivers, but are exempt from things like property taxes that help fund city services. “The current financial relationship between the region’s local governments and large nonprofits is untenable,” according to a 2022 report by the city and Allegheny County controllers. The report urged the creation of a durable “payment in lieu of taxes” program to generate new revenue for city expenses, something that other cities have done successfully. 

UPMC’s Monopoly Keeps Wages Low and Prevents Workers from Unionizing, Lawmakers Say
January 23, 2023
– Two Pennsylvania lawmakers are warning their constituents about UPMC, claiming the health system has built a monopoly that negatively affects both employee wellbeing and patient safety. They said UPMC has “considerable power over workers, which it wields to keep wages low, conditions unsatisfactory and prevent union organizing.” Last week, Pennsylvania State Rep. Sara Innamorato and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee held a press conference and released an 18-page report on UPMC, which is the largest non-governmental employer in Pennsylvania. The report analyzes and critiques the health system’s “relentless string of acquisitions and construction of new facilities.” This has resulted in union-busting, low wages for hospital workers and the closure of units and service lines at hospitals that UPMC has acquired, according to the report.

2,000 Studies Show Fracking Causes ‘Severe Harm’ to Human Health
April 29, 2022
– Combining findings from more than 2,000 scientific and government studies, a report published Thursday details how hydraulic fracturing has “dire impacts on public health and the climate.” Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY) released the eighth edition of their “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking,” a comprehensive examination of the state of the hydraulic fracturing industry and its impacts. “The scientific evidence reveals conclusively that fracking causes widespread and severe harm to people and the climate,” Sandra Steingraber, CHPNY co-founder and compendium co-author, said in a statement.

Living near fracking wells linked to early death
January 28, 2022
– People over the age of 65 who live near or downwind from fracking operations are at greater risk of premature death than their counterparts who don’t, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University. The large study, published today in Nature Energy, is the first to link air pollution from fracking wells to premature deaths. The researchers found that people over 65 who live closest to fracking wells have a 2.5% higher mortality risk compared to people in the same age group who don’t live near wellpads. They also found that the risk of premature death increases the closer people live to fracking operations, and that people who live downwind of well pads are at higher risk of premature death than those living upwind.

Radioactive Oil & Gas Test Sites Uncovered & Mapped by Public Herald
January 24, 2022
– For about six years, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has obscured the radioactive hazards of oil and gas operations. Ever since the 2016 release of its study on oil and gas TENORM — technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material — the DEP has kept the names and locations of where radioactive waste was detected a secret and told the general public there was little to worry about. Now, for the first time, all 144 names and locations are being released by the team at Public Herald. We’ve mapped the landfills, centralized waste treatment facilities, publicly owned treatment works, zero-liquid discharge facilities, brine-treated roads, well pads and their test results for radium from the DEP’s study. For Public Herald’s analysis, we focus on radium (Ra-226 & Ra-228) because it is federally regulated for its health impacts, highly soluble in water and a lead indicator of TENORM contamination.

2021 Annual Report – Allegheny Health Network
Allegheny Health Network delivered earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization of $154 million through December 31, an improvement of more than $70 million compared to 2020 performance, as patients returned to hospitals and physician offices seeking care.

A Hot Fracking Mess
July 2021
– Even as oil and gas exploration and production have boomed across the United States, the country continues to lack any federal regulations governing the handling and disposal of radioactive waste and materials generated from these activities, leaving Americans reliant on spotty and loophole-ridden state oversight. Radioactive materials not only can contaminate oil and gas compressors, pumps, pipes, and storage facilities, creating a hazardous environment for workers, but also can enter the environment through the mismanagement of oil and gas waste. Waste can leak out of storage pits, tanks, and landfills or spill during transportation. It is sometimes purposely spread over land and mixed with the soil in an industrial waste management practice known as “land farming.” Wastewater may be used for dust suppression or deicing roads. These practices deliberately introduce millions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater into the environment every year.

Groups want fracking waste included in Pa. health study
March 5, 2021
– “We’re talking about waste from fracking wells, either in liquid form or in solid form that is frequently transported by truck and delivered frequently to landfills,” said Alison Steele, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “There are concerns from these communities that that could be behind the recent spike in childhood cancers in the area.” Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are conducting the studies, which are expected to take three years. Steele praised the scientists leading the research, but doubted the study will change the picture about fracking’s impact on public health. Scientists have found correlations between fracking and the incidence of a variety of health problems, like asthmaheart problems, and pre-term birth and low birthweight.  

When the Kids Started Getting Sick
March 2, 2021
– There has long been evidence that chemicals contained in fracking waste may be dangerous. While doing research on behalf of Valent and other families, Kendra discovered a 1991 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a research facility of the Department of Energy, that analyzed health risks posed by radium isotopes in the waste produced by conventional gas drilling. “Two isotopes of radium (Ra-226 and Ra-228) are the radionuclides of most concern,” the report read. Radium, which attaches to bone, is known to cause cancers and other illnesses. According to the Brookhaven study, which references their case, “Health effects associated with the ingestion of Ra-226 include bone sarcoma.”

Fracking Has a Radioactive Problem
October 26, 2020
– Harvard scientists have found that fracking is associated with greatly increased radioactive particulate in the air, especially in West Virginia’s dependent petrochemical economy. People who live within about 12 miles of fracking sites are at the highest risk, with ambient radiation as high as 40 percent over the background level. “As of 2017, over 120,000 onshore UOGD wells had been drilled via a practice involving directional drilling combined with multistage high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking),” the researchers explain in the paper. “Meanwhile, numerous controversies have arisen, partially due to the potential harmful impacts on the local environment, and on the health of nearby residents.” More

Johns Hopkins Researcher: Ban Fracking in Pennsylvania
November 20, 2019
– A scientist at Johns Hopkins University told a public health conference in Pittsburgh that Pennsylvania should ban fracking because of its impact on public health and climate change. Brian Schwartz has found through years of National Institutes of Health-funded studies that being close to fracking increases the likelihood of asthmapremature birth, headaches, and maternal stress levels. He said the evidence that fracking is bad for your health is clear enough. “What would I say now? I would say because of the regional and local health concerns and concerns about climate change, we should stop fracking–everywhere,” he said.

How did fracking contaminants end up in the Monongahela River? A loophole in the law might be to blame
September 11, 2019
– For years, the landfill sent Belle Vernon its leachate — liquid waste that collects at the landfill when rainwater trickles through its piles of garbage. Kruppa began looking at test samples of the leachate. He sent it to an engineer he used to work with. “He goes, you have some very high numbers and as far as chlorides, conductivity, barium,” Kruppa said. “He said these are all indicators of frack waste.” He found out about 40 percent of the landfill’s waste since 2010 had been solid oil and gas waste. It wasn’t just the salts, he said. Gas waste is high in radium, a naturally-occurring radioactive material found in the Marcellus shale. Some of that radium was making it from the Westmoreland landfill through Kruppa’s treatment plant and into the Monongahela River. One discharge test showed levels of radium at 8 picocuries per liter. The EPA standard for drinking water is 5.

Fracking tied to adverse health effects in Pennsylvania
October 2016
– The team studied 7,785 adults in Pennsylvania to determine associations between fracking wells and various health effects. After mailing questionnaires to primary care patients of the Geisinger Clinic in 39 counties in Pennsylvania, they identified patients who had migraine headaches, fatigue, and chronic rhinosinusitis — a condition that causes a variety of nasal and sinus symptoms that lasts longer than 12 weeks. The researchers chose these symptoms for this study because they are widespread in the United States and generate costs for healthcare and in lost productive work time. Participants in the group exposed to the highest amount of fracking activity were almost twice as likely to have two or more of the health conditions studied than those exposed to the lowest amount of fracking activity.

New research suggests increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes closer to active unconventional natural gas wells
– Expectant mothers who live near active natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry in Pennsylvania are at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely and for having high-risk pregnancies, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests. The findings, published online last week in the journal Epidemiology, shed light on some of the possible adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry, which has been booming in the decade since the first wells were drilled. Health officials have been concerned about the effect of this type of drilling on air and water quality, as well as the stress of living near a well where just developing the site of the well can require 1,000 truck trips on once-quiet roads.

Radioactive Wastewater From Fracking Is Found in a Pennsylvania Stream
October 2, 2013
– In the state of Pennsylvania, home to the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation, 74 facilities treat wastewater from the process of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) for natural gas and release it into streams. There’s no national set of standards that guides this treatment process—the EPA notes that the Clean Water Act’s guidelines were developed before fracking even existed, and that many of the processing plants “are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater”—and scientists have conducted relatively little assessment of the wastewater to ensure it’s safe after being treated. This new work confirms that suspicion for at least one plant—which as about an hour east of Pittsburgh, and releases effluent into the watershed that supplies the city’s drinking water—and Vengosh believes that the findings would likely be similar for many of the other facilities in Pennsylvania. Especially concerning is the fact that, apart from in the water, the team found high levels of radioactivity accumulating on the sediments at the bottom of the stream over time. Radium has a half-life of 1600 years.