By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item
DANVILLE — A key study on possible health impacts of natural gas drilling by Geisinger Health System, which has captured the attention of some of the nation’s top environmental advocates, is short on funding with Geisinger only raising $1.3 million for the first phase of the study, which is estimated to cost $25 million.
However, Geisinger officials said the study — a collaboration with Guthrie Health in Sayre and Susquehanna Health in Williamsport — will go forward as they try to secure the necessary funding.
“All partners are committed to building a data warehouse for health assessment and enabling the broadest array of relevant research projects as possible,” said Andrew M. Deubler, executive vice president for the Office of Resource Development at Geisinger. “Currently, several pilot studies are under way, looking into incidence of trauma, perinatal outcomes and asthma and pulmonary disease.”
The $25 million price tag includes “sustaining funds to collect, curate and make available data, as well as fund pilot studies related to specific questions of research interest,” Deubler said.
Geisinger announced the study in May 2012 while preparing to comb through hundreds of thousands of patient records dating back to 2004 for clues into the public health effects of the natural gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania. Most of the grant money will underwrite a data infrastructure system to collect information.
The study will look at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients who live near the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in which energy companies have drilled about 5,000 natural gas wells.
“The goal of the study is to provide sound information to conduct unbiased and sound research, guide effective prevention or mitigation strategies and to aid local, state and federal governments in developing rational policies with respect to mining activities,” Deubler said.
The study caught the attention of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state was locked in a tense battle over the approval of Marcellus Shale drilling.
In March, with Cuomo poised to approval limited drilling in the southern tier, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cuomo’s former brother-in-law, told The Associated Press that he talked to Cuomo about the Geisinger study, which Kennedy said he thinks will be pivotal. Soon after Cuomo spoke with Kennedy and others, the momentum in New York to approve limited drilling died.
In February, the Sunbury-based Degenstein Foundation donated $1 million toward the project, and it remains the largest contribution to the effort.
“We think it’s a real important thing for the Susquehanna Valley region to have a neutral study” about health and drilling, Degenstein Foundation co-trustee Michael Apfelbaum said in February.
In an attempt to raise the remaining research funds, “Geisinger continues to hold meetings with potential institutional partners,” Deubler said.