PA Marcellus News Digest
October 22, 2012
A Look At Who Might Be Setting Federal Energy Policy Next Year
NPR State Impact
Four Townships Say They’re Still Owed Impact Fee Money
NPR State Impact
DCNR has no intention to permit parks drilling
Richard Allan, DCNR Secretary
Letter to the Editor
Your editorial attacking the Corbett administration over the resignation of John Norbeck as state parks director ("Abrupt Exit: The State Parks Are Losing a Friend and Protector," Oct. 13) was built around the faulty premise that he was forced out over a difference of opinion about whether to permit gas drilling, commercial timbering and strip mining on state park lands. These inaccuracies could have been prevented had your reporter telephoned for comment about them, but he did not.
Forum to discuss Marcellus Shale Documentary Project
A community forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in conjunction with the "Marcellus Shale Documentary Project" exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland.
Counties prepare wish lists ahead of gas impact fees
Barbara S. Miller and Jon Stevens
The Washington County Public Safety Department’s 12-year-old hazardous materials truck, before being refurbished and put into service, was used to deliver beer.
It’s becoming difficult to find replacement parts, so Director Jeff Yates would like to replace it at a cost of $200,000.
That’s just one of the entries on a so-called wish list sent to the Washington County commissioners by department heads who were asked to submit their priorities for use of the county’s approximately $4 million Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling impact fee share.
Reports: Marcellus reserves larger than expected
Centre Daily Times
Kevin Begos, AP
PITTSBURGH — There's been plenty of debate over the Marcellus Shale natural gas field, but new research adds a twist that could impact political and environmental battles. Two independent financial firms say the Marcellus isn't just the biggest natural gas field in the country - it's the cheapest place for energy companies to drill.
Spectra protest raises radioactive issues for Marcellus Shale gas
E&E News, EnergyWire
NEW YORK -- Protesters opposed to Spectra Energy Corp. building a natural gas pipeline into Manhattan have been hammering a new theme for the past few weeks, arguing that gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale would heighten exposure to radiation and increase lung cancer rates here.
The gist of their campaign is that gas cracked out of bedrock in Appalachian states that make up the Marcellus play by the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has more radon content than gas from other regions.
This effort to halt Spectra in its tracks has taken its cues from the Occupy Wall Street movement, naming itself Occupy the Pipeline. Among the tactics have been dozens of activists disrobing and painting themselves green and several climbing atop construction equipment on the west side of Manhattan until removed or arrested -- all of which has gained them notoriety with local media.
But in terms of content, the protests have taken on a different tone than anti-fracking uprisings elsewhere. The radon line of argument appears to be Occupy the Pipeline's unique battle cry, as the activists warn that millions of apartment dwellers in New York could be exposed to mini-bursts of radiation through stoves and heating systems.
Whether the Marcellus is more radioactive than other shale formations is not in doubt: The region does have significant deposits of uranium and thorium whose byproducts can end up mixed in with natural gas. But whether that radioactivity would actually end up flaring up from a Greenwich Village stovetop at dangerous levels is very much in question.
Their claims are based on the work of Marvin Resnikoff, a retired physicist who does consulting work for Vermont-based Radioactive Waste Management Associates. Resnikoff, whose clients include the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, recently conducted a study in which he argued that gas fracked from the nearby Marcellus could cause a massive lung cancer cluster spike in New York.
Exposure to radon, a byproduct in the decay of uranium, leads to about 21,000 deaths by lung cancer in the United States each year, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer fatality after smoking. Resnikoff says such cancers in New York City could spike from just over 1,000 annually to more than 30,000 if shale gas from Pennsylvania, New York and other nearby states is allowed into Manhattan homes.
The physicist based his conclusions not on direct calculations of radon at drilling sites but rather on approximations taken from a 1981 U.S. Geological Survey study of uranium deposits in the Marcellus and old gamma-ray well logs from companies. He came to the conclusion that radon in Marcellus gas is 70 times more intense than gas from other regions.
In an interview with EnergyWire, Resnikoff conceded that he started looking into the radon issue with money from the Sierra Club. But he insisted the group was billed only $1,000 and that much of the work has been done out of his own personal concern about the issue and what he sees as outsized industry influence, he said.
"This data is based on reasonable assumptions, on how much uranium and thorium is in the ground," he said. "I billed the Sierra Club $1,000, but you need to counterbalance that with the hundreds of thousands of dollars the industry has put into this."
The activists have also taken up the claim that because the Marcellus is so close to New York, the usual decay of radon -- which has a half-life of 3.8 days -- will not take place in time. They say gas from nearby shale deposits will arrive before radon's potency is cut in half, making it extra dangerous.
Resnikoff defended this claim, as well. He said radon-heavy gas will arrive in the Big Apple sometimes in less than a day via Spectra's extensive gathering and distribution system.
"This material moves at 10 or 11 miles an hour through pipelines," he said. "It takes much longer to travel from Louisiana and Texas than from upstate New York and Pennsylvania."
Partly in reaction to Resnikoff, USGS recently performed a wellhead spot test for radon at 11 Pennsylvania sites and determined that levels were in a relatively safe 37 picocuries per liter range (picocuries are a unit of radioactivity). That's a far cry from Resnikoff's estimations of levels closer to about 2,000 picocuries per liter.
While the results are preliminary, USGS released the findings to address conclusions drawn by Resnikoff. In short, the authors appeared to dismiss his work.
Resnikoff's report "relied on theoretical calculations utilizing limited data from geologic analogs," USGS researchers E.L. Rowan and T.F. Kraemer wrote. "A decision was made to release our small and preliminary dataset because ... measurements of radon in natural gas at the wellhead have not previously been published for the Appalachian Basin."
Resnikoff's response? He said USGS hasn't yet conducted a thorough enough study of the situation. He also wonders about the agency's bias, in part because the Obama administration for years has been pushing for more domestic production and is continuing to do so in the heat of a tight presidential campaign.
"They've been somewhat corrupted by industry," he said.
Research by the New York Department of Conservation appears to support USGS. The state agency, which is considering whether to lower a moratorium against hydraulic fracturing, looked at the radon question while putting together a draft plan for permits last year. The DEC said "naturally occurring radioactive materials," or NORM, were not significant, though the draft did acknowledge that the Marcellus is higher in radioactivity than other bedrock formations.
The DEC continued: "Uranium and thorium, which are naturally occurring parent materials for radium, are contained in mineral phases in the reservoir rock cuttings, but have very low solubility. The very low concentrations and poor water solubility are such that uranium and thorium pose little potential health threat."
Adding to the fire directed mostly in Resnikoff's direction were two studies commissioned by Spectra that essentially lampooned his findings. Lynn Anspaugh, a physicist, took several shots at Resnikoff in her study of his work, calling his findings "sensational and false."
"Resnikoff's improper and incorrect cancer estimate is based upon his erroneous estimate of the radon concentration in the natural gas supplied to New York State customers," she said, adding that "cancer risk, based on actual radon measurements from natural gas samples along the existing pipeline, is insignificant."
She noted a 1973 U.S. EPA study of radon that found an overall median at the wellhead of about 37 picocuries per liter.
"Even if one accepts Resnikoff's other two claims ... that New York City apartment volumes are smaller than the residential volumes assumed by the EPA, and ... that the air exchange rate is lower than assumed, the lung cancer risk is still insignificant -- approximately 1 chance in 100,000-- a risk level that is considered acceptable by the U.S. EPA," she said.
The view from EPA
Nidal Azzam, a radiation expert at EPA, was also fairly dismissive. He explained that the agency's jurisdiction on radon is limited to issuing guidelines for indoor air quality and not directly regulating the gas. To him, levels at the wellhead would never translate to comparable levels in a home far removed from drilling.
Azzam referenced the 3.8-day half life of radon, which he said would cause an eventual weakening by the time it reaches end-use. When asked about the notion that radon could have a more harmful effect because it would be piped into New York City quickly, Azzam said the idea was far-fetched.
"That's hard to digest," he said.
And how about energy workers, who would theoretically be most likely to inhale radon?
"I would say inhaling the gas would be more dangerous than inhaling the radon," Azzam said. "If you're not exposed to inhaling the gas, you're not exposed to the radon."
Told of the comments by the EPA official, Resnikoff said no agency had yet studied possible effects on small apartments in New York, as opposed to larger suburban homes. And even if he's wrong, he said his bottom-line point would be the need to conduct more studies on the ground, at the wellhead and in Pennsylvania homes to get a better picture.
"I've only wanted them to properly test it," he said. "They really should do much more thorough studies."
At Spectra, company spokeswoman Marylee Hanley sounded confident that the radiation issue would pass. She said both EPA and the Energy Department have found no public health risk from radon in natural gas.
She also noted that any gas that ends up in New York, assuming the pipeline is completed next year, would come from throughout Spectra's North American system and not just the Marcellus. And it would likely replace heating oil, which burns dirtier and contributes especially to air pollution problems in New York's low-income neighborhoods.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg "has been quoted as saying this project is going to help him achieve his PlaNYC," she said, in reference to the mayor's aggressive attempt to rid the city of heating oil.
Moreover, several national environmental groups asked to comment on radon would not. The president of Riverkeeper, Paul Gallay, last week said his group was looking into the matter, while officials at the Natural Resources Defense Council were cagey about offering a quote before attorney Eric Goldstein finally said the group doesn't have the staff to assess the question.
"We don't have a view one way or another of the latest questions that have been raised," Goldstein said. "But we hope that as part of its final environmental review, DEC will be looking closely at this (and the many other areas of concern) and respond to all the concerns."
As for his own data, Resnikoff admitted they might be imperfect because he didn't have direct access to drilling sites. But he nevertheless sees value in raising the issue.
"There are a whole bunch of factors we could not assess, like how much storage is going to take place," he said, adding that so far, he has sampled 92 New York apartments and found low levels of radon in place currently, before direct access to Marcellus gas enters the equation. He's hoping it stays that way.