Stop me if you’ve heard this one. I was just sitting there, minding my own business, listening to one of the Senate committee hearings. When one GOP Senator asked the testifying witness, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) about a recent study released just that morning. USGS scientists examined about seventy fracking wells in Arkansas looking for evidence of water contamination. They found none. The witness, almost flattered his agency’s work had earned recognition, and somewhat impressed the Senator appeared so well prepared, responded with pride to the Senator’s initial interest. After a couple of introductory questions, the Senator asked (and here I am paraphrasing):
Senator: So your study found no contamination, right?
Scientist: That’s right Senator.
Senator: And that’s a good thing, right?
Scientist: (long uncomfortable pause)…Senator we were just asked to do the study.
Seriously. Just in case you were wondering how incredibly apolitical the scientists over at USGS are. They won’t even take a policy position on whether water contamination is good or bad.
Politicians decide policy; scientists help inform policy decisions by explaining the world we live in. So, it’s disappointing to hear politicians accuse scientists of playing politics. The most recent example of this involves a letter a number of senior GOP House members sent to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The letter openly questions the scientific objectivity of a little known agency within HHS called the (I’m not making this up) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
ATSDR intends to create a database documenting the health effects suffered by people exposed to natural gas drilling. It’s important to provide support to scientists whose only motivation is to perform high quality science. And if they have dual motivations, they also seek to protect public health. It was ATSDR (and the Environmental Protection Agency and later USGS) who came to the aid of the residents of Pavillion, WY suffering from contaminated water linked to fracking. The GOP letter criticizing the agency’s involvement here cites a statement by ATSDR director Dr. Chris Portier where he suggested that reports of gas drilling’s health effects deserve a “more serious and systematic approach to studying it.”
We need a serious and systematic approach to studying the adverse health effects of fracking. We also need to have politicians stick to politics so the scientists can stick to science. This happens over and over again. The House Majority attacked the EPA over Pavillion. They repeatedly question the existence of climate change. One rising star in the GOP feigned agnosticism as to the Earth’s age. And it’s not just about science; it’s math too. So, kudos to ATSDR for documenting the suffering of our friends in the Gas Patch. If you’re a government scientist, it takes courage to stand up to the politicians who control your budget and then accuse you of being a political hack. We have your back.