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Lila Nordstrom Headshot

Healthcare and the Marcellus Shale -- Fracking's Consequences in Upstate New York

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I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, just three blocks from the World Trade Center. On 9/11 I ran from the burning towers and on October 9th, 2001, I returned to a school building contaminated with dust and debris. It would not be fully cleaned until the following summer, and fires that made the air thick with smoke would burn at nearby Ground Zero for several months.

Luckily during this period I was spending the weekends at my parents' second home in a beautiful town of rolling hills, pastures and forests in central New York State. Naturally, I never could have guessed that residents of this town might face the environmental health hazards I encountered in the months after 9/11. Upstate New York was, in fact, my respite from these risks. Risks that have given my Stuyvesant classmates and me serious GERD, respiratory problems, mental health issues and may be linked to our unusually high number of autoimmune disorders and cancers.

This community, however, is now discussing whether or not to open itself up to similar problems. See, the town is on the Marcellus Shale, and local residents and policymakers are considering whether or not to regulate natural gas drilling (hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking") at the local level. There is a group adamantly opposed to bringing this pox on their idyllic landscape, but there is also a large amount of support for it from desperate farmers and others in need to an economic miracle.

Put simply, fracking offers quick cash. In a town with few job opportunities and many struggling small farms, it's not hard to understand why fracking sounds appealing.

The quick cash promised by gas companies, however, can create enormous expenses in its wake. One of the issues that has gone unconsidered largely until recently is the health impact natural gas drilling has on the community. These impacts are caused by a number of factors, including chemicals leaching into drinking water and soils used for food production, as well as emissions from the heavy truck traffic that transports gas and materials.

According to a September article in ProPublica, communities leasing their land for drilling have seen health issues that include "respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer." These sound mighty similar to what 9/11 victims are facing.

So, in the interest of protecting my town upstate, I have some advice from the future.

We use the term "heroes" to describe a majority of the recipients of care under the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and hear endless appeals to "never forget." One wonders, then, why it took ten years to pass a comprehensive 9/11 health bill.

When I say "comprehensive bill," of course, I am using their words, not mine. The Zadroga Act covers five years of care for first responders and local residents, office workers, and students, but does not monitor anybody who is not already sick and does not cover care for any cancers, even those that are widespread. Additionally, for the last decade, care for 9/11 victims has only been available in and near New York City. Only in the last few months has a national program been established and its scope remains unclear. Like with many of my fellow Stuyvesant classmates, all of whom have gone to college and begun adult lives since 9/11 occurred ten years ago, this presents a challenge because I now live on the other side of the country.

Next there is the issue of obtaining regular insurance while saddled with 9/11-related pre-existing conditions. The Zadroga bill only covers specific health issues, after all. It is not a replacement for regular insurance. Last year I tried to change private insurance plans and found that my 9/11-related pre-existing conditions generated an automatic rejection from every plan I looked into, an issue that wont be addressed until at least 2014 when the pre-existing condition laws in Obama's national health bill take effect.

These burdens do not belong on kids from upstate New York, just as they did not belong on my classmates and I. Plus, communities that expose themselves to fracking will undoubtedly face even longer waits for care than 9/11 victims did. Health studies of the impact of natural gas drilling will get the scientific run-around by gas companies intent on keeping their operations profitable. Libby, Montana, a town that was decimated by asbestos mining 50 years ago, has had unprecedented cancer rates and scientific proof that asbestos made the entire town sick for decades. They did not get health coverage until 2009.

So far nobody has cracked the code on how to make small-scale farming economically viable in upstate New York, but perhaps addressing that issue would allow desperate communities to say no fracking. Whatever it would take, I want the children of my friends upstate to grow up in a healthy environment, not the equivalent of lower Manhattan after 9/11. I hope their parents have the foresight to let them.