Pennsylvania Doctor Challenges Fracking Gag RuleAug 2, 2012 | Parker Waichman LLP
A Pennsylvania physician who routinely treats workers who’ve been injured or exposed to dangerous elements at active hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells is challenging a state law that would bar him from openly discussing the full extent of a patient’s illness.
A new law in Pennsylvania aimed at protecting the natural gas, oil, and fracking drilling industries places a “gag order” on physicians who treat patients complaining of illnesses likely derived from nearby fracking operations in the state. In theory, if a worker or nearby resident were to seek a doctor’s help for a breathing condition and that condition were diagnosed to be caused by exposure to certain ingredients used in fracking, a doctor would not be allowed to discuss this fact with their patient.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer report this week, Luzerne County (northeast Pa.) physician Alfonso Rodriguez has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn that law so he’s not forced to compromise his medical ethics to protect the fracking industry.
The fracking industry asserts, despite research and claims to the contrary, that the drilling process which extracts natural gas and oil deposits from underground shale is safe and efficient. It has repeatedly denied that fracking is responsible for health or environmental hazards but has lobbied to get laws like this gag order in place to protect it against such claims.
An attorney representing Rodriguez told the source he’s the go-to physician for workers who’ve been injured during well blowouts or exposed to toxic elements of the fracking process. This new law may allow him to treat the patients but he’s barred from fully disclosing the source of the injuries or illness a patient sustains. For instance, if a worker is sick due to exposure from diesel fuel (used in at least some fracking wells) but diesel fuel is on a list of exposures which a doctor is prevented from disclosing to the patient, then the doctor may treat the patient for those conditions but can not inform them as to why they’re sick.
Rodriguez is now using a letter he submits to patients prior to treating them. It states that the Pennsylvania law may force him to “curtail” his ethical standards and “obligation” in order to treat them.
Specifically, the lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court in Scranton, Pa., seeks to block Act 13 of a medical provisions law regulating state fracking activity. Pennsylvania likely has the weakest regulations in the nation governing fracking drilling and that has led to a boom in activity and made the state one of the battlegrounds in the debate of its safety and viability.
While the state appears willing to bend backwards to allow fracking drilling to continue almost unchecked, this provision clearly shows the state lawmakers are even willing to force doctors and others to compromise their standards to comply with the drilling expansion.
Rodriguez’ lawsuit names Attorney General Linda Kelly, Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, and Public Utilities Commission Chairman Robert Powelson as Defendants.
Opponents of Act 13, passed earlier this year, say that not only does it prevent doctors from openly discussing the health of their patients with that patient, it also bars them from identifying public health risks that may be clearly linked to fracking drilling.