HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration said Monday it has enhanced the state health department's handling of complaints involving natural-gas drilling, prompting environmentalists to renew their demand for more aggressive action.
Health Secretary Michael Wolf said steps recommended by a departmental working group include implementation of a written-letter response policy to better document correspondence between the department and people who file drilling-related health complaints.
Other changes include providing information to doctors about how to file environmental health complaints and making the department's website easier to use, he said.
"Protecting the public's health and ensuring that citizens and health care providers have access to accurate, timely and relevant information is a primary responsibility of the department and one that the governor and I take very seriously," Wolf said.
In July, six of the state's leading environmental groups called for an investigation into the department's handling of drilling complaints.
John Norbeck, vice president of PennFuture, said the changes announced Monday will promote transparency within the department but a statewide registry is essential for tracking environmental health threats and spotting trends early on.
It is "important that Pennsylvania try to get ahead of this from a public health standpoint," Norbeck said.
David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, said the state should not only establish a statewide registry but also move aggressively to learn more about the health risks as the industry continues to expand in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania.
"We need to do the research to figure (out) what the potential health effects are," he said.
Environmentalists and other critics of a natural-gas drilling procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting wells with chemically treated water, say it could contaminate water supplies, but the energy industry says the process has been used safely for years.
Health department spokeswoman Holli Senior said the department supports the concept of a registry but it would be an expensive proposition.
"We're still exploring a number of options, including public-private partnerships," Senior said. "With 57 complaints to date, it's not a very large sample size."
Food & Water Watch said Monday's announcement shows the department has "lost the trust of the people of Pennsylvania."
"An independent investigation is needed to uncover just how many fracking-related health complaints have been swept under the rug," said Sam Bernhardt, a spokesman for the group.