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Lapse of Fracking Law Provisions Undermines Doctors’ Power to Warn of Health Risks, Professor Barry Furrow Tells Patriot News

Professor Barry Furrow

March 24, 2017

Inaction by Pennsylvania lawmakers will allow provisions of a law requiring public notification of gas-drilling spills to lapse, the Patriot News of Harrisburg reported on March 23.

The deadline was imposed when the State Supreme Court invalidated portions of a 2012 law limiting public notifications of chemical spills resulting from fracking that affect drinking water. The 2016 ruling gave the Legislature until March 27 to revise the affected parts of the law.      

The Patriot News article cited a provision of the law that will lapse that lifted a gag order that had been imposed on doctors, preventing them from counseling patients about the chemicals to which they may have been exposed.  The gag order had been based on claims by the drilling industry that information about the chemicals are trade secrets.  

"Without that section anymore, I guess doctors can ask but there's no mandate to disclose and no offering of any protection," Professor Barry Furrow said, alluding to safeguards the law had given doctors to share information about the chemicals. "It's a legal vacuum. If I were a fracker, I would withhold the information and wait for someone to sue me."

Furrow, the director of the Health Law program, said the Legislature's failure to rewrite provisions of the law could prompt parties who sued the state for access to information to go back to the court for injunctive relief, but it's not clear that would be effective.

"Can you hold the Legislature in contempt?" Furrow said. "That's a good question."

If individuals are harmed because public or private well owners were not notified of spills, Furrow said, that would also likely end up in the courts.

"If people are hurt, they're going to look for a remedy," he said. "Into that vacuum will come a lot of theories that will be resurrected because you don't have the protection of statute."