The Obama administration is getting more push-back from House Republicans about federal research aimed at assessing the health risks associated with a booming natural gas industry.
In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, GOP leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee accused officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of harboring "preconceived notions" about the possible health effects of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
"Despite the significant growth of natural gas development," the members wrote, "we are greatly concerned that the scientific objectivity of the Department of Health and Human Services is being subverted and countless jobs could be in jeopardy."
The letter called into question public statements made by Christopher Portier, director of the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Portier on multiple occasions in the past year has asserted the CDC's role in examining the health implications of expanded gas drilling. At a conference in May sponsored by the Institute of Medicine, he talked about the CDC's "boots on the ground" and its determination to partner with U.S. EPA and others in examining the process of deep horizontal drilling and fracking.
The members of Congress pulled a Portier quote from the online publication ProPublica: "In some communities it has been a disaster," Portier told the publication in a September article about lagging public health data around gas fields, where open-air pits and industrial equipment can emit dangerous substances into the air and water. "We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole."
The Friday letter from Congress also pointed to CDC "consultations" aimed at studying private-well contamination, data from a Chesapeake Energy Corp. well site and data from contaminated water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania.
"Naturally-occurring substances in groundwater have been considered as 'contaminants' by ATSDR in these evaluations," the lawmakers said. And scientists at the top public health agency had "not adequately evaluated the historical groundwater quality data," they added.
Further, the members of Congress said the CDC had not done enough sampling at sites in Pennsylvania.
The representatives called on CDC to designate the studies "highly influential scientific assessments" to ensure they get enough "funding, rigor, and transparency" to be carried out properly. They urged federal researchers to consult with states and the Groundwater Protection Council, an organization of state regulators that works closely with the oil and gas industry.
House Republicans have resisted a federal role in studying the health effects of rapidly expanding unconventional gas development, which uses chemicals and industrial equipment to blast through natural-gas-rich shale more than a mile underground. The recent letter also alluded to a request by committee staff members in September for a CDC briefing on their studies.
The CDC is part of an interagency working group created by President Obama through an executive order. It's designed to guide the federal government's examination of health and safety issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.
The letter was signed by Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and former Chairman Joe Barton of Texas. They said Portier's public record "calls into question whether a study under his leadership can be objectively and validly conducted."
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