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BY EILEEN STUKANE | There are many issues to debate concerning the natural gas that is planned for arrival through the Spectra Energy Pipeline — currently under construction on the Gansevoort Peninsula at the edge of the Meatpacking District. A frightening one is whether the gas will be bringing cancer-causing radon to our kitchen stoves and heating systems.
A scientific firestorm of sorts was set off by a January 2012 report from Marvin Resnikoff Ph.D., a highly credentialed physicist and senior associate of Radioactive Waste Management Associates. He was concerned that in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s early report on issues concerning natural gas hydraulically fractured, a.k.a. “hydrofracked,” from the Marcellus Shale, radon was only addressed, as he said, “in one sentence out of 1,400 pages.” He therefore undertook his own independent studies.
A tasteless, odorless, colorless gas, radon is created naturally during the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium and radium, minerals that are highly present in Marcellus Shale. Radon inhalation is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, the second leading cause among smokers, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon causes 21,000 deaths from lung cancer a year.
According to Dr. Resnikoff’s report, the fast transport of radon-containing natural gas hydrofracked from Marcellus Shale, could lead to an increase in lung cancer deaths from 1,182 to 30,448. While Governor Cuomo has delayed his decision on whether to expand hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale in Upstate New York, activists warn that radon levels in the natural gas coming to the West Village still need attention. Cuomo has required a study on the impact hydrofracking would have on public health Upstate at the drilling locations.
But activists say that New York City should be aware of radon, too. Resnikoff, who based his calculations on his analyses of a 1981 U.S. Geological Survey study and gamma ray logs, reported that hydrofracked Marcellus Shale gas could contain radon concentrations 70 times above average when compared to hydrofracked gas from other areas.
To back up for a moment, Marcellus Shale — named for an outcropping near Marcellus, New York — is the geologi- cal result of the prehistoric settlement of marine sediment, in other words, bedrock. Marcellus Shale stretches thousands of feet belowground, from West Virginia, through Pennsylvania, a bit of Ohio, and on along the west side of the Hudson River in New York. Hydrofracking basically blasts open the underground rock using an array of unspecified chemicals and tons of water and sand to release the gas from the shale’s uranium and radium-226. Gas from the disturbed minerals contains as a side effect, radioactive radon.
The good news is that radon has a relatively short half-life of 3.8 days, after which its concentration drops in half. After another 3.8 days that half divides in half, so it’s a fourth of the original, and so on. It dissipates quickly. Radon is fairly diluted in the gas we regularly receive from the Texas-Louisiana Coast, which takes six to eight days to get here. On the other hand, gas from the Marcellus Shale area, traveling at the estimated 10 miles per hour, will be here in less than a day, not enough time for the radon to diminish its radioactivity significantly.
Resnikoff caused enough raised eyebrows to prompt the U.S. Geological Survey to go to wellheads and test for radon levels. From his data, he calculated radon levels would be as high as 2,500 picocuries per liter, with 37 at the low end, but the U.S.G.S.’s more comforting findings show 37 picocuries per liter as the median. (The E.P.A. cites 4 picocuries per liter as the safe level in homes.) The U.S.G.S. study, which is considered preliminary, sampled 11 unspecified wells, some on Marcellus Shale, in Western Pennsylvania. More samples are needed since wells are known to vary in levels of radium-226 and radon. Experts were commissioned by Spectra Energy for its “Texas Eastern Transmission LP and Algonquin Gas Transmission LLC New Jersey – New York Expansion Project” — the official name of the pipeline coming to the Village — to review Resnikoff’s assertion that as many as 30,000 excess lung cancer deaths might occur due to high radon levels. One expert labeled Resnikoff’s figures “sensational and false.” Spectra Energy also hired an environmental engineering company to test eight natural gas samples taken from along its pipeline for radon levels. A close-to-New York sampling from a New Jersey compressor station — which contains a mixture of natural gas from Marcellus Shale, Texas and Louisiana — read 17 picocuries per liter, quite a bit lower than Resnikoff’s estimates of up to 2,500 picocuries. However, this natural gas does not contain the Upstate Marcellus Shale natural gas that may be hydrofracked in the future.
So where does that leave those of us who are cooking on gas burners? A Final Environmental Impact Statement produced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, came out in March 2012. Four paragraphs out of about 1,500 pages were devoted to the radon safety issue, which is at least an improvement from the earlier report’s one sentence. FERC concludes: “We [FERC] expect that the combustion of gas delivered by LDCs [local distribution companies] would comply with all applicable air emission standards. In the unlikely event that these standards are exceeded, the necessary modifications would be implemented to ensure public safety.” Again, the E.P.A. sets radon safety in the home at 4 picocuries per liter. Test kits anyone?
Also, remember that issue of the speed of transport? Remember that natural gas hydrofracked from the Marcellus Shale area to New York City gets to us in less than a day, while radon needs 3.8 days to disintegrate by half? According to Marylee Hanley, Spectra Energy’s director of stakeholder outreach, “The gas traveling on our system comes from four different locations, the Rocky Mountains, Nova Scotia, the Gulf of Mexico and Marcellus.” The natural gas coming to New York City will be commingled, diluting the radon level of the closer Marcellus natural gas by mixing it with the gas that has traveled for a few days. The levels of commingling, however, are unknown. Also, although storage tanks to hold the natural gas for a few days before transport to the city would give radon’s radioactivity a chance to diminish, Hanley does not see storage as a possibility. She referred to Spectra’s released statement that FERC “has concluded that the exposure to radon in the home is very limited and doesn’t pose a health risk.” See above for FERC’s final words on radon at the end of its four paragraph review.
At the moment, six environmental groups and seven individuals have recently filed suit against Spectra Energy and the Hudson River Park Trust — which granted an easement for the project — to block construction of Spectra Energy’s natural gas pipeline, due for completion in November 2013. The suit claims that a review of the project, complying with New York State’s Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, was not conducted. As the lawsuit makes its way through the legal system, the radon safety debate remains.
There is complete agreement among all the scientists, however, that the level of radon that exists in hydrofracked natural gas can be determined fairly easily through regular testing. An impartial entity ought to be able to measure the radon at the wellheads, in the pipelines, at the compressor stations and in the homes if necessary. As one researcher suggested, “Get out of the office and get some samples.”