HARRISBURG - House Democratic lawmakers are preparing new legislation to expand safeguards for the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on the environment and public health.

The caucus policy committee held a hearing this week where a former state official and environmental and public health advocates called for a rewrite of state laws addressing air and water quality, public health monitoring and public land issues related to drilling.

The testimony will help the caucus shape priorities as it seeks to revise the natural gas drilling impact fee law enacted last year, said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, Havertown, ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Safety issues are still important with the number of natural gas wells in Pennsylvania expected to increase tenfold to 60,000 during the next couple of decades, added Vitali.

The two issues drawing the most attention are water and air protection, said Rep. Frank Farina, D-115, Jessup, who attended the hearing. Farina sits on the House environmental panel.

The state Department of Environmental Protection needs to increase its drilling oversight staff by 50 percent and allow inspectors to issue notices of violations without prior approval from DEP officials in Harrisburg, said John Hanger, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former DEP Secretary in the Rendell administration.

"Right now, we do not have enough regulatory eyes looking over the industry," he added.

The state needs to create a health registry of people who report plausible symptoms related to drilling, said Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. In the impact fee law, legislators left out a provision to establish a registry, she said.

"Such data is invaluable to public health researchers, toxicologists and physicians who seek to identify specific symptoms associated with exposures to various stages of the gas extraction process," said Kriesky.

Democratic lawmakers are preparing legislation aimed at protecting state-owned lands from drilling. State parks in the Marcellus Shale formation are at risk because the state only owns the mineral rights under about 20 percent of the total state park land, said Steve Stroman, policy director for PennFuture, an environmental group.

The Republican-controlled House gave priority so far this session to moving legislation to develop markets for the Marcellus Shale industry, but the Democratic caucus will still push for new environmental protection bills knowing that eventually the time will be right to act on them, said Vitali.

"You have to keep plugging, educating and getting people on the record on these issues," he added.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Jefferson County, said this week that the impact fee law which he helped author has been successful in protecting the environment and generating revenue for state and local governments.

Contact the writer: rswift@timesshamrock.com