Appalachian Basin

A Closer Look at the SWPA Environmental Health Project

The Associated Press recently reported on the work of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), specifically its work in studying health impacts of shale gas development in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The EHP’s findings were so juicy that anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber – best known for calling hydraulic fracturing a “tornado” that “kills people – touted them in a local newspaper. The data released to date may be found in this slide presentation and, frankly, is largely speculative, but that’s beside the point, especially when you look at the background on the EHP itself.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project is a non-profit entity closely related to some very biased groups who directly or indirectly advocate against all natural gas development. For obvious reasons, this should raise red flags in terms of the veracity of the information they’re putting out.

The EHP operates under the aegis of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, which is the first clue the EHP isn’t about health.  In fact, the foundation describes itself as having a “particular focus on working to protect Pa’s water and watersheds” with no mention of health issues, and it helps run the blatantly anti-gas FrakTracker site.  The EHP funding, moreover, comes from entities that are funding hard-core opposition to hydraulic fracturing.

One of the major funders of the EHP, for example, is the Claneil Foundation, which over the last five years has funded a minimum of $582,000 of opposition to natural gas development, according to its website and IRS 990 returns.  This includes not only $150,000 to EHP, but also $155,000 to PennEnvironment, the folks who tried to pass off a fake picture of a flooded Pakistani oil rig as a Pennsylvania gas rig.  It also includes $67,000 to the Delaware Riverkeeper and $50,000 to Food & Water Watch, two organizations with anti-development positions that can only be described as extreme.

Finally, there is a $45,000 grant to Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE).  This is the Park Foundation-funded group Tony Ingraffea uses as a front to advance an anti-development agenda, supported by individuals as Renee Santoro, Michelle Bamberger, Robert Oswald and Pouné Saberi, all of whom are well-known opponents of shale gas development. They have also authored papers that were heavily criticized by their peers for their bias.  PSE does no research and publishes nothing that does not stand in opposition to natural gas.

One additional member of that group is Dr. David Brown, who is a member of the PSE Advisory Council, who also serves on the staff of the EHP, giving further clues as to the true mission of the latter.  Brown is better known for his work on artificial turf fields and outdoor wood furnaces, claiming both to be toxic.  During his work on artificial turf he sampled 12 fields from Connecticut but stated his study was too small to be conclusive.  Seems like he has a penchant for taking strong positions based on limited evidence, not unlike his fellow PSE members Bamberger and Oswald.

Based on its funding priorities, the Claneil Foundation must appreciate that sort of thing.

The same is true for the Heinz Endowments, which is another major funder of the EHP and is represented on the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds Board of Directors.  Heinz helps fund nearly everything connected with natural gas opposition, as the following table summarizing selected grants made in just 2010-2011 demonstrates.


(click to enlarge)

That’s over $7.5 million spent by Heinz with the clear intent of frustrating natural gas development in every manner possible, whether it’s the phony economic study out of Cornell or the now infamous Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, run by the now deposed Conrad Volz.  The EHP is merely part of a broader strategy employed by the Heinz Endowments, one of relentless advocacy against shale gas and one that makes the work of the EHP highly suspect.

This brings us back to the results Steingraber grabbed onto like a lifeline.  Regardless of the quality of the work or the legitimacy of any complaints made, it’s pretty darned hard to make conclusive statements based on speculation about 27 cases, especially when there is much more broad-based and in-depth research available.

Just a few years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted air quality sampling in southwest Pennsylvania. Here’s what DEP concluded:

“Results of the limited ambient air sampling initiative conducted in the southwest region did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”

Those results have been replicated elsewhere, too. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) conducted comprehensive air monitoring over the Barnett Shale and had this to say about the results:

“After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.”

Those findings are meaningful, but they don’t fit the Claneil Foundation or Heinz Endowment templates, so we’re not seeing it reflected in the EHP work.  Instead, we have a collection of complaints, with no data on causation, second opinions, or even proximities to natural gas development (though they do say it’s in the same county).  Frankly, it just doesn’t cut it, but it sure does fit the strategy of some wealthy special interests opposed to shale gas.

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