Serious Cancer Threat posed by High Radon Levels
The construction and use of the proposed gas pipeline to Shamokin Dam from the Marcellus Shale region to the north of our state presents a huge threat to the health of all valley residents. However, gas company UGI are conspiring to downplay the risks – refusing to publicly accept that there is even a problem! At a recent public meeting one UGI official – Mr. Bernie Holcumb, turned the truth on its head by deceptively denying that there was any radon in the gas from the Marcellus Shale beds!
The company which was recently fined by the Public Utility Commission the maximum amount of $500,000 following a 2011 Allentown explosion which killed 5 people, had their safety record at the same hearing described as “downright alarming”.
However, they are taking no such chances with the Sunbury Pipeline. They have set up a separate company – UGI Sunbury LLC – to front the construction and operation of the pipeline and to insulate themselves from the prospect of any future liability. In the event of a catastrophe the parent company can simply wash its hands of it all and walk away, leaving their subsidiary to pay what it can towards any plaintiffs out of their limited resources. Do they even have adequate levels of insurance to cover potential damages to landowners and their property, or are they just minimally bonded? We just don’t know as they have stonewalled any questions concerning this issue.
Radon (see below) poses an insidious threat to gas consumers. By the time that statistical evidence of increased rates of lung cancer in the Valley become available, the sheer scale of the problem will make it virtually impossible to apportion any blame to those responsible no matter how many early deaths their irresponsible actions may have caused.
Pipeline Blast Radius
The potential blast radius, or distance from the source of explosion where damage could be expected to occur, for a 20″ natural gas pipeline such as the one being proposed, can be up to 600 feet, depending on operating gas pressure and prevailing weather conditions. This does not augur well for Giant or Staples or other stores on the northern edge of Monroe Marketplace in Shamokin Dam and adjacent to the preferred route for the pipeline, as such an incident could incinerate that entire block, and at a speed which could certainly preclude a safe and orderly evacuation of customers and staff members.
This risk is greatly exacerbated when bearing in mind is that once a pipeline right of way has been established, there is nothing stopping the company installing a further pipelines along the same right of way, and using pipe of much greater diameter. Larger pipes pose a hugely increased threat, having a greatly extended blast radius.
It seems incredible that Shamokin Dam Mayor, Joe McGranaghan, having sworn an oath to protect his citizens, is enthusiastically cheerleading this dangerous project, despite the serious risks posed by it to both public health and safety, not just for his community, but for many other municipalities in the surrounding areas. His actions are reminiscent of those of Mayor David Persing in Sunbury during his infamous Celotex campaign when he actively promoted John Moran’s extremely dubious proposals for a toxic frack dump in Sunbury. The City was saved from this fate by the dramatic fall in gas prices rather than by any action taken by its ignoble leaders.
Radon Gas – an Invisible Killer
Radon is a colorless, odorless, inert, and potentially deadly radioactive gas that forms naturally in the shale beds when radium decays. Radon can harmlessly diffuse through outdoor air, but when it is piped into a home or building, the condensed, elevated levels can be extremely dangerous. Its concentration is not affected by burning.
A recent National Academy of Science report stated that radon is one of the leading causes of lung cancer in the United States, second only to cigarette smoke. While lung cancer is the primary, potential health risk of exposure, it’s not the only one. Other effects may include chronic gastrointestinal problems and stomach cancer.
Radon gas doesn’t discriminate: it is equally dangerous to all people, regardless of weight, sex, race, or age. However, the very young, the elderly, and those with a weakened immune system are particularly at risk.
Radon has a half life of 3.8 days. This means that every 3.8 days after it leaves the fracking well its radiation level will reduce by one half, so after 7.6 days it will be down to one quarter of its original radioactivity. However, gas flows through pipelines at an average speed of 10 mph meaning that the total transit time for gas in the Sunbury pipeline will be around 3.5 hours. During such a short time it will lose only around 2.5% of its efficacy and still be extremely hazardous.
Potentially lethal levels of the gas will be delivered to anyone using Marcellus gas within a home or other enclosed space to power an unvented appliance such as kitchen stove or flueless gas heater.
The safe limit for the gas quoted in the current federal Radon Act is 0.4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) which corresponds to the average outdoor levels of the gas in the US.
Measured levels at PA wellheads vary between 36.9 pCi/L and an astounding 2576 pCi/L. This highest level is over 6,000 times the federal safe limit, and radon from such gas will rapidly increase to dangerous concentrations within living spaces during periods of use. According to the World Health Organization, lung cancer risk rises 16% per 2.7 pCi/L increase in radon exposure.
It does not take an Einstein to figure out the extreme risks posed to public health by possible radon levels in Marcellus Shale gas in excess of 2,000 pCi/L
Problems Posed by Pipeline Construction
UGI have refused, at public meetings, to answer questions on such basic issues as:
- The conducting of assessments to determine the inpact of their activities on public health
- What they will do if their activities do cause health problems
- What emergency response plans they have in place
- How many pipelines they eventually intend to establish on this right of way
- How they will protect the many endangered, threatened and protected species of wild life which live on or near the route of their proposed pipeline, and how they will avoid habitat destruction or disruption.
The company intends to utilize blasting where “necessary” as part of their excavation process. Such blasting may disturb underground aquifers, leading to underground water contamination and changes in its distribution, as well as the possible release of radon. Homeowners are faced with an almost impossible task of proving that such problems are a direct result of the activities of UGI and their contractors.
Many farmers and land owners participate in Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs, planting trees, shrubs and bushes in order to slow water runoff, control flooding and reduce river erosion and sedimentation. The Sunbury Pipeline proposals negate the design of CREP and programs like it by removing millions of dollars worth of trees, increasing rapid storm water runoff with the attendant increased erosion and sedimentation, both during and after construction, since no trees will be allowed to grow on the right of way again.
Water runoff will also be impacted by soil compaction during construction, leading to an increased risk of creek and river flooding. Such flooding has potential, in turn, to cause permanent damage to fisheries, wetlands and other river ecosystems.
The installation of additional pipelines on this right of way will also require more compressor stations that are noisy, polluting, disruptive, and dangerous, and a severe threat to human health, further degrading values of affected properties.
UGI has failed to negotiate fairly with land owners for right of way by not informing them of many of these issues. No pass through contracts have been offered, where UGI would pay the landowner per unit of gas crossing their property, as is sometimes done in the western United States. The property owner will still have to pay taxes on land occupied by the pipeline. UGI will use the land, conduct their business of moving gas through he landowner’s property, without property tax consequences, but the landowner’s use of the property is now restricted, thus lowering the value of the land. Development of the land is prohibited.
Some banks and lending institutions are now refusing mortgages for properties with gas wells, and pipelines. Property insurers, in turn, are beginning to deny insurance or charge much higher rates to owners of such properties. What will be the cost, in both life and dollars, if there is an explosion in a more populated area such as Shamokin Dam? What will be the cumulative cost to the land owners, both now and in the future?
By increasing demand, this project will contribute to additional fracking activity on the Marcellus shale beds, with its own set of serious pollution and other environmental issues. In this respect Marcellus Gas is cumulatively, through its extraction process and life cycle, no cleaner than coal, and may even be more polluting when methane leakage is taken into account. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. With noisy compressor stations belching it into the atmosphere, global warming will be further accelerated.
Dangers of Fracking
Fracking involves the pumping underground at very high pressures of millions of gallons of a toxic chemical cocktail, with the aim of fracturing rock formations which contain the oil or gas. The cocktail contains known carcinogens and often diesel oil. The flowback fluid from the wells is further contaminated with heavy metals, brine and radioactive materials, and some of this is illegally disposed of by dumping in our creeks and rivers. There are also vast lagoons in the vicinity of drill pads where the carcinogenic volatile organic compounds are allowed to evaporate, posing substantial health hazards for anyone unfortunate enough to be living downwind. Dick “Dr. Death” Cheney was responsible for getting the fracking companies immunity from the provisions of the clean air and clean water acts. You may well ask yourself, if this process is as safe as is claimed, why this move was necessary?
The process consumes millions of gallons of precious freshwater from the water cycle, resulting in reduced river flows, and drastic changes in aquatic eco systems. In Pennsylvania these changes have had a deleterious effect on the valuable fresh water fishing industry, and there are increasing incidents of fish being caught bearing cancerous tumors. The water which remains underground can eventually find its way into aquifers, poisoning both water supplies and springs which feed many of our creeks. There have been many recorded cases of poisoned water supplies, including over 1,400 environmental violations in PA alone. Many private wells have suffered methane contamination, with an accompanying risk of explosion.
Other problems include pollution from heavy truck traffic on rural roads, contamination around storage tanks, habitat fragmentation for rare and endangered species and severe damage to environmentally sensitive areas.
Questionable Role of FERC
FERC – the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission has claimed authority in this project, a claim which is at best questionable as this is not an interstate pipeline, nor can any public necessity be shown. Currently an operational electric generation plant, at Shamokin Dam, PA, lies idle. It is apparent that additional electrical generation is not needed from this site; the current plant has been operated only sporadically on an extremely limited basis for several years, and has remained idle for most of this time.
Its redevelopment into a natural gas fired station will not, as has been falsely claimed, lead to any further jobs in Shamokin Dam over and above the few employees necessary to run the operation. No public convenience will be served by the UGI Sunbury Pipeline project.
What will be generated by this project is public inconvenience, with its abundance of long term and potentially serious health and safety issues.
Because of FERC involvement, UGI get power of eminent domain – those who own property on the proposed route have little right to challenge loss of amenity, land value, environmental or health issues. For FERC to attempt to defend their involvement on the grounds that some of the electricity may just possibly end up in other states, is at best a stretch, and should receive judicial challenge.
Two entities that will find necessity and convenience will be UGI Sunbury LLC and Sunbury Generation LLC. Both of these companies will profit at great expense to the environment, land owners, and general public.
The public is denied access to the biweekly meetings held between FERC, UGI Sunbury, Local, State and County Agencies. Meaningful and timely public comment can’t be provided when the same public is fed only the filtered information and propaganda which these various agencies want them to have. How can any citizen trust such a process from which they have been so completely excluded?
FERC also withholds information under a “Contains Privileged Information – do not release” classification, or information which they, at their sole discretion, term Critical Energy Infrastructure Information (CEII). Comment is further stifled by segregating commenter’s, land owners, and individuals from each other and by inhibiting the ability to comment by denying these stakeholders the information and resources they should have.
The proposed Sunbury Pipeline will be good for UGI and good for the gas frackers, but a disaster for everyone else. Have the values of this country become so warped that the mighty dollar now takes precedence over all issues concerning citizen health, safety and quality of life? The greed of corporations has now become so profoundly entrenched in the system that everything else pales into insignificance. In this instance a major utility company, although fully aware of the risks its proposals entail, is irresponsibly plowing ahead regardless, hiding behind a veil of laws which were certainly never enacted to protect the rights of individual Americans.
The project will remain hugely profitable only for as long as the price of gas remains low. However, once full operation is commenced by the multitude of export terminals now being developed, and our gas is sent to places such as China and India to fuel their own industry and increase their competitiveness against American-based companies, then the price of gas is set to soar.
What do our citizens get out of this – lung cancer, pollution, degraded living conditions, accelerated global warming, environmental destruction. The list is long and scary. Do these corporate bandits even care? The answer would seem to be a definite NO!
The ultimate destination for such uncontrolled and insane practices will be the total demise of the global ecosystem, and along with it the end for many diverse species, including human kind, from within whose ranks the perpetrators have arisen. Is this really going to be the epitaph to our civilization – one which allowed itself to be destroyed by greed, corruption and fat cat corporate aggrandizement?
Many other civilizations have failed – history is littered with such accounts. However, ours will be the first (and probably the last) to take the entire planet down with it.