Fracking Impact Hits Close to Home … and new pipeline project looms: Increasing Radon Levels Alert for NY, CT & New Jersey
Oct 28, 2013 04:15PM
By Ellen Weininger
A growing number of people are beginning to comprehend the health and environmental impacts of hydrofracking, or shale gas extraction, and oppose the practice; yet they often assume the negative impact of “fracking” is confined to areas where such operations are conducted. However, as the expansion of natural gas infrastructure sweeps the New York tri-state area, we are quickly learning that both the infrastructure and the new gas supply itself pose health and environmental threats very close to home.
Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of a highly toxic brew—millions of gallons of fresh water mixed with hundreds of chemicals and sand—into well bores to crack open shale. Unfortunately, 10 to 40 percent of this poisonous mixture returns to the surface with the natural gas, along with additional contaminants including heavy metals and radioactive elements like radon.
Data indicate gas delivery from wellhead to each gas appliance like stoves, fireplaces, water heaters and boilers, could increase current levels of radon exposure by a factor of anywhere from 20 to 80 times or more
And the negative impact doesn’t end there. The full life cycle of shale gas production involves clearing large swaths of land; building roads; trucking millions of gallons of water, chemicals and hazardous waste; and creating a vast infrastructure—including pipelines that can leak and explode and highly polluting compressor stations—to bring natural gas, primarily composed of methane, to our homes, schools and other buildings.
The supply of natural gas in our area is expected to change this November (2013), when the new Spectra Pipeline begins delivering natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region to New York City, Westchester and beyond. Marcellus Shale gas, known for its high levels of radon and other radioactive materials, will likely supplement and then ultimately replace the city’s current natural gas supply, which comes from the Gulf Coast.
The Gulf Coast supply, which has very low levels of radon to begin with, takes four or more days to reach the New York area, allowing sufficient time for radon decay to take place. (It takes 3.8 days for radon to begin to decay.) In contrast, US Geological Survey data indicate radon levels in the Marcellus Shale may be 20 to 80 times greater than current Gulf Coast levels—and this new gas supply would travel for less than a day. This shorter transport time is inadequate for radon to decay prior to delivery, increasing the risk of public exposure to high levels of this known lung carcinogen.
Data indicate gas delivery from wellhead to each gas appliance like stoves, fireplaces, water heaters and boilers, could increase current levels of radon exposure by a factor of anywhere from 20 to 80 times or more; however, the cumulative impact of multiple exposures from several gas appliances in one dwelling is unknown. According to the Centers for Disease Control and other federal and global health agencies, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers nationwide. There are no safe levels of radon exposure, and children, the elderly, and those already health-compromised are particularly vulnerable to its effects.
Unfortunately, the natural gas infrastructure in our region may spread further. A proposed expansion of the Spectra Algonquin pipeline is slated for Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held two scoping meetings on the proposal—one in Westchester County on September 30 and one in Danbury, Connecticut on October 1—with negligible communication to public officials and the general public. While numerous requests to extend the deadline were made, October 14 marked the FERC deadline for public comments on the scoping process.
One of many concerns about the proposed pipeline is that it would intersect with a proposed underground high-voltage transmission line just a few hundred feet from the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s spent fuel pool, and in close proximity to the Ramapo fault. The project would also involve replacing its existing 26-inch diameter pipeline with a 42-inch high pressure pipeline between Ramapo and Fairfield County, Connecticut. Explosions by natural gas pipelines can cause extensive damage, and pipelines also leak methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. With inadequate pipeline regulation and oversight and Spectra’s history of safety issues, this pipeline project poses a serious threat to public health, safety, property values and the economy.
The new Spectra Algonquin project would include the expansion and construction of five compressor stations, which are loud and operate continuously, with each one emitting tons of toxic pollutants a year. Health problems associated with compressor station releases include respiratory and neurological problems, headaches, skin lesions, blisters and bloody noses, among others. The impact could be critical for citizens of the tri-state area, where air quality is already unacceptable according to US Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Although the US Energy Information Administration projects a steady decline in demand for natural gas through 2040, gas infrastructure projects are proliferating across New York and other states. Given the glut of natural gas and cheap energy prices domestically, one could surmise that natural gas exportation is the ultimate goal. Expanding and building new gas infrastructure unwisely invests in dirty fossil fuels at a time when we should be fast-tracking our investment in and expansion of clean, renewable energy infrastructure instead.
What can you do to protect your family and community?
1) Test your home’s radon level now, as a baseline, in case that level increases later. Get information about radon testing at health.ny.gov/environmental/radiological/radon/testkit.htm
2) Do whatever you can to save energy, and urge schools, businesses and government to do the same. (Please visit EnergizeNY.org.)
3) Promote proposed legislation A6863/S4921, introduced by NYS Assembly member Linda Rosenthal and NYS Senator Diane Savino to help protect the public from exposure to radon in natural gas.
4) Contact FERC at FERC.gov. Comments should refer to Spectra Algonquin Incremental Market Project Docket # PF13-16-000 and should be addressed to Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary.
5) Learn more at an upcoming educational forum to be announced. (Check the Natural Awakenings online calendar at WakeUpNaturally.com.)
Ellen Weininger is the educational outreach director of Grassroots Environmental Education, a science-based, environmental health nonprofit with offices in Port Washington on Long Island, Rye, and Westport, CT.