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N.Y. State Health Commissioner Won’t Wait For Studies On Fracking

Fracking equipment in South Montrose, Pa. (file / credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Fracking equipment in South Montrose, Pa. (file / credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York State Health Commissioner Nariv Shah said Monday that he will not wait for the completion of any studies, and plans a recommendation “in weeks” on whether the state should approve hydraulic fracturing.

Shah said he won’t wait for the final results on gas drilling studies, which could be years away.

Instead, he said state officials will talk to at least some of the researchers about their findings.

Shah says he met with researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Geisinger Health in Pennsylvania within the last two weeks.

Geisinger plans preliminary results within a year. The agency is studying the health records of individuals living near Pennsylvania gas wells from before and after fracking started.

Two people close to the situation said Gov. Andrew Cuomo sees the Geisinger report as key to his decision.

Unlike most studies funded by advocates or opponents of hydraulic fracturing, the Geisinger study would be funded by the Sunbury, Pa.-based Degenstein Foundation, which is not seen as having an ideological bent.

Cuomo said recently that he will he will await recommendations from his health and environmental conservation departments before making a decision on whether to endorse fracking. He has not set a deadline for that process.

Last week, the New York State Assembly voted to suspend until 2015 any action on allowing gas drilling using fracking. The Assembly and state Senate both want to provide time for the Cuomo administration to consider the studies.

The Associated Press reported a few days earlier that Cuomo came close to approving a limited drilling plan for as many as 40 shale gas wells last month before environmentalist and former brother-in-law Robert Kennedy Jr. helped persuade him to await a new Pennsylvania health study, which could delay a decision for up to a year or longer.

New York has had a moratorium since 2008 on horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which frees natural gas from shale by injecting a well with chemically treated water and sand at enormous pressure. Other states in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation have seen local economies boom as drilling rigs have sprouted up.

In fracking, which has been around for decades, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into wells to break up underground rock formations and create escape routes for the oil and gas. In recent years, the industry has learned to combine the practice with the ability to drill horizontally into beds of shale, layers of fine-grained rock that in some cases have trapped ancient organic matter that has cooked into oil and gas.

By doing so, drillers have unlocked natural gas deposits across the East, South and Midwest that are large enough to supply the U.S. for decades. Natural gas prices have dipped to decade-low levels, reducing customer bills and prompting manufacturers who depend on the fuel to expand operations in the U.S.

Yet environmental groups and other critics believe the chemicals have polluted drinking water supplies. In 2010, filmmaker Josh Fox documented serious concerns about fracking across the country in the documentary “Gasland,” after he was asked personally to lease his land for drilling.

Some of the most sensational images in “Gasland” show flames erupting around water running from a sink spigot in a Pennsylvania town near a fracking site.

The fight against fracking in New York has garnered some big-name support. Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, went to Albany in January with a crowd of 3,000 environmentalists to urge a statewide ban on fracking.

Regulators nonetheless contend that overall, water and air pollution problems related to fracking are rare, although environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn’t been enough research on those issues.

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