Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Does Pennsylvania’s Shale Gas Have Too Much Radon In It?

It’s no secret many people in New York oppose fracking.

The latest concern from some New York City residents is that the shale gas they receive from Pennsylvania contains higher levels of radon — an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas, that’s responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths every year.

A group called Occupy the Pipeline recently produced a YouTube video about it, which has attracted more than half a million views.

The group opposes the Spectra pipeline, which is set to be completed next fall. It will carry shale gas from Pennsylvania and Ohio underneath New York City’s West Village.

So are higher radon levels a legitimate concern?

Michael Arthur, co-director of Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research says it’s a complex issue worth studying more.

“The problem is that radon can be produced with natural gas, especially from organic-rich units like the Marcellus Shale,” he says. “There haven’t been systematic studies of this yet. It’s difficult to get access [to pipelines] and sample.”

Arthur says indoor radon exposure from natural gas depends on all kinds of things like how long people leave their stoves on and how well-ventilated their buildings are.

As gas travels through pipelines, the concentration of radon declines. It’s half-life – or the time it takes the radon concentration to drop by half– is 3.8 days.

Arthur says it takes about 10 days for gas from Louisiana’s Henry Hub distribution site (where the gas has lower radon levels) to reach the Northeast.

“That trip is much shorter now because you’re going directly from Pennsylvania to New York City.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is looking into radon levels in natural gas as part of a year-long study it recently launched to examine radiation associated oil and gas production.

DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday says the agency doesn’t believe radon poses a serious risk.

“It’s one of the things we’re looking at in our study, but we don’t expect there to be much of an indoor air exposure issue.”

Meanwhile the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry trade group, says radon concerns are just the latest attempt at fear-mongering by fracking opponents.

“Their claims are unsupported by facts and science,” says MSC spokesman Travis Windle. “Those are absolutely outrageous claims by a small but vocal minority.”

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