The Zoning Hearing Board of Mount Pleasant Township in Washington County, Pennsylvania recently dealt a major blow to the research of a few prominent activists, notably Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSEHE) (a group that has manufactured and pushed a number of studies claiming fracking harms public health).

The board considered the testimony of Shonkoff after Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) filed an appeal challenging a zoning ordinance passed by Mount Pleasant Township that allows shale development in all zoning districts in the township under certain conditions.  PennFuture waited 10 years to challenge the ordinance, justifying the delayed legal effort because it was “symbolic” since the township is the site of the first Marcellus well.

Despite thirteen years of evidence to the contrary in the township, Shonkoff attempted to make the case that fracking would harm the community. But as the board’s memo clearly shows, he did not succeed:

“The Board finds Dr. Shonkoff testimony to be equivocal, not properly founded, and not credible. As such the Board has disregarded Dr. Shonkoff’s testimony.”

The board made a number of other key observations about Shonkoff’s testimony, including the fact that he completely ignored numerous studies that took direct air measurements and found no elevated risks. Regarding the only study Shonkoff cited that did take some measurements, here’s what the board had to say about it:

“…only one included a benzene citizen grab sample in Pennsylvania, which Dr. Shonkoff acknowledged was no higher than we would often have short-term exposure to in an urban environment or at a gas station or in traffic; and others involved estimates of potential emissions and not actual air monitoring.”

The board also made a point of noting that the epidemiological studies Shonkoff was citing actually “do not prove causation,” which Shonkoff couldn’t help but acknowledge during his testimony. From the board’s report:

“Dr. Shonkoff acknowledged that many health outcomes discussed in the literature are not specific to chemicals associated with unconventional natural gas development, e.g., headaches can be caused by a number of factors, rashes can be nonspecific, and asthma can be induced through a number of pathways complicating the path of assessing associations between exposures and health outcomes.


“On cross-examination, Dr. Shonkoff admitted that the articles also acknowledged a well-designed regional study, concluded that their data indicated greater impacts of benzene emissions from urban and combustion sources than from natural gas related sources and that the measured concentrations were below levels of health concern.”


“Dr. Shonkoff cited the McKenzie and Casey birth outcome studies, but acknowledged that he was not aware of the criticism of the McKenzie study by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and acknowledged that the authors of these studies came to inconsistent and opposing conclusions.”


“Despite testifying that his opinion was based on a ‘deep read of all of the epidemiologic studies as well as a number of the studies that I thought were important with respect to ascertaining the potential air pollution exposures from unconventional natural gas development’, the only literature concerning health effects from unconventional natural gas development Dr. Shonkoff cited in his report and his testimony were his 2016 literature review (with no discussion or analysis of any of the articles) and the McKenzie and Casey studies on birth outcome, all of which have significant limitations as discussed above.” (emphasis added)

This is important because it clearly demonstrates the political nature of anti-fracking activists’ campaign, as they have to resort to “science” that provides scant or dubious evidence.

Of course, Shonkoff is the same guy who authored a 2012 memo, entitled “Public Health Dimensions of Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing: Knowledge, Obstacles, Tactics, and Opportunities,” which, as EID pointed out, was a call for activists to manufacture research to allege community health problems and then utilize the media to enhance their advocacy. As Shonkoff put it in the memo: “[T]he lack of robust, causal data that links hydraulic fracturing to health has slowed the efforts of NGOs, activists, and others focused on regulatory reform and community health protection.” He went on to note:

“[T]he development of a scientifically rigorous body of evidence of environmental health threats is crucial to the engagement in litigious battles, to drive regulation, and to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for their actions. Indeed, an enormous body of studies was an integral component in the struggle to bring the tobacco industry under regulation and it will likely take many authoritative studies do the same to the fracking industry.” (p. 17; emphasis added)

In his testimony, Shonkoff pointed to his groups’ work in that space over the past few years:

“PSE is a group of—and we have a horrible horrible acronym, but PSE is a group of physicians, scientists and engineers – that’s what PSE stands for. Whose mission is to bring scientific transparency to energy policy issues. And what that basically means is we identify data gaps that should be filled and we fill them. We publish in the peer-reviewed literature. We publish technical reports. And then instead of only publishing a report and letting it out into the world, we do translate that science from English to English into forms that can be understood by people who are making decisions in spaces that range from oil and gas development in California, Pennsylvania and elsewhere to considerations around public health, environment and climate issues with renewable energy transitions.” (emphasis added, 1:00:57)

Yet, the Zoning Board ultimately determined that “PennFuture has failed to meet the heavy burden imposed upon it by applicable law to invalidate the Zoning Ordinances of Mt. Pleasant Township” and therefore,

“Unconventional natural gas development is compatible with and essential to the continued viability of agricultural and rural residential life in the Township.”

Notably, it wasn’t just Shonkoff’s lack of evidence in his testimony that led to this decision.  The board was also highly critical of a 2016 Duke University study on property values presented as testimony by one of the study’s authors, Christopher Timmins.  During his testimony, Timmins acknowledged that his study had significant limitations and that his conclusions were based on perceived groundwater contamination, but that he had no actual evidence or samples to show actual groundwater contamination. In fact, he could provide no evidence that the property values in the township with the longest history of Marcellus development in the state had been negatively impacted at all, resulting in “the Board reject[ing] the conclusion that Dr. Timmins study demonstrates that there is an adverse effect of gas development on property values in the Township.

And there was testimony from a retired pediatrician, Ned Ketyer, who is part of the anti-fracking Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP). The board specifically noted that Ketyer is “…not a toxicologist, an epidemiologist, or an expert in air modeling, and does not do formal health risk assessments and has not published articles on the health effects of gas development.” Actually, despite testifying on the harm from air emissions, Ketyer acknowledged in his testimony that he had not reviewed any of the available relevant peer-reviewed studies or the monitoring data from Washington County or the Allegheny Health Department, Pa. Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) air sampling data or the air sampling studies  by ChemRisk at Fort Cherry School District. Ultimately, the board did not find his “opinion that emissions from unconventional natural gas development are abundant and pose a threat to humans and human health credible to the extent necessary to consider in this matter.”

PennFuture’s attempt at “symbolic” legal actions fell short because it was lacking something crucial: actual evidence from real experts to show that the wells in Mount Pleasant Township or anywhere in the Marcellus are causing harm to local communities. In fact, the board saw right through attempts to flag health concerns that aren’t backed by sampling or data, and in its analysis of PennFuture’s witnesses made it abundantly clear that rhetoric without fact would not be accepted as credible expert testimony.