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Health officials want more time to study risks of fracking to public health and environment

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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Health officials and environmental advocates in Maryland are asking for a temporary stop to fracking plans.

Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery County, on Thursday proposed the Protect Our Health and Communities Act, which includes an 8-year moratorium on the natural gas drilling method so that more information can be gathered about public health risks that critics say was not properly studied by a review board.

"I strongly feel there was not adequate representation on what arguably is the most important part of fracking," said Fraser-Hidalgo. "That is to ensure that ourselves and our children remain unharmed from fracking."

Hydraulic fracturing is a process by which sand, chemicals and pressurized water are blasted underground, shaking loose rocks and releasing gas.

"Given the nature of the chemicals we do know about that are used in the fracking process, we may well see an increases in cancers, neurological diseases, cardiac and respiratory illnesses and developmental disorders in the coming years," said Dr. Gina Angiola, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of Maryland. "But it will take time for these effects to show up, which is why it is critically important that we get a moratorium in place in Maryland while further health studies are being completed in states where fracking is already underway."

Currently Maryland does not have any fracking within its borders, but a portion of the western side of the state sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which runs underground from New York to Tennessee. Neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania allow fracking, while New York banned the practice due to health concerns.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has acknowledged the natural gas opportunity in western Maryland, spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said.

"Fracking has been studied for well over three years now and we don't need another eight years of studies before making a decision," Montgomery said. "If it can be done in an environmentally safe way, then we should move forward with it."

In 2011, then Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley tasked an advisory commission to study the potential for fracking in Maryland's western Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

"When the commission began its work, a public health perspective was not on the state's radar screen and the departments were fixated on developing best management practices for industry," said commission member Ann Bristow, a Garrett County resident and member of the Savage River Watershed Association. "From the public health perspective, the commission was flawed from the beginning, and health professionals were there from the beginning saying that."

The method has been hotly debated across the country by advocates who defend its economic development opportunities, while opponents say the method wreaks havoc on the local environment and communities.

"I know that we need to regulate it, we need to minimize the risk," said Del. Garrett Beitzel, R-Garrett County. "This industry is being looked at closer than anything else I can possibly imagine that's come into the state of Maryland. There's a big invisible sign out there that basically says gas companies are not welcome. As a result I think we're being deprived of some really big economic opportunities."

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