the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2013/Spring 2014



A City Story of Residential Radon, Natural Gas and Lung Cancer
by Richard Levine
An Open Letter to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo:

Residential Radon

Residential Radon by Victoria Salvador

Governor Cuomo:

Natural gas from Marcellus Shale in NY and PA poses a special health threat to residents of NYC and urban centers throughout the state. That threat is radon, a radioactive element present in all natural gas from shale. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization, U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. E.P.A. They estimate some 20,000 radon-related lung cancer deaths annually, and also cite the potential for lowered infant development from residential radon in cooking gas emissions.

Most health and environmental studies of the potential risks of natural gas extraction focus on populations in close proximity to hydrofracking well drilling operations, related toxic water containment pools and increased heavy truck traffic. But these communities cook and heat their homes almost exclusively with propane, wood stoves or electricity. NYC and other urban centers rely on natural gas for cooking and heating, and the close confines of often insufficiently ventilated city kitchens pose a very different setting for potential exposures to radon-radiation.

The natural gas NYC residents now use flows through pipelines from Texas and Louisiana, a journey of six to eight days. In that time radon decays to 'safe' levels (there is NO such thing — more later). If that gas flowed from upstate NY it would arrive here in hours and with as much as 70% more radiation — some estimates cite greater exponential increases. In addition, the natural gas from Marcellus Shale contains far higher levels of radiation than current supplies from LA and TX.

Radon does not burn off along with the natural gas from a stove or furnace. Instead, it takes up residence in an apartment's air and environment. And because radon is a heavier than air it sinks to the floor. Inhaled, it anchors in lung tissue, planting the seeds of lung cancer.

Governor Cuomo, because you ordered the state Department of Health to review the potential health risks of hydrofracking for natural gas in Marcellus Shale, we urge you to reject any health review that does not include:

  • a thorough assessment of the increased residential exposure to radon from natural gas from Marcellus Shale (from both NY and PA);
  • measurement of the increased radioactivity of radon exposure from upstate NY and PA natural gas supplies, due to shorter time in transit than from existing suppliers in LA and TX; and
  • analysis of the U.S. EPA's "Pooling of North American (and European) Residential Radon and Lung Cancer Studies".

"This is a subject which deserves further study before this, or any other supplies of Marcellus gas, are delivered to the residents of the five boroughs, where it may endanger the health of tens of thousands of citizens," said Al Appleton, former Commissioner, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in discussing the Spectra Pipeline, which will carry fracked natural gas from Marcellus nearby deposits.

Governor Cuomo, you recently said, "We'll make a decision on the facts rather than on feelings, which is always good." We, the undersigned, agree and urge you to demand the DOH review analyze the special health risks to residents of NYC and other urban centers in the state which may be caused by increased exposure to radon generated from Marcellus natural gas.

Richard Levine

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What level of radiation exposure is "safe"?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "There is no firm basis for setting a "safe" level of exposure above background for stochastic effects." Stochastic effects are those that occur by chance and consist primarily of cancer and genetic effects. Stochastic effects often show up years after exposure. To give you an idea of the usual rate of exposure, most people receive about 3 tenths of a rem (300 mrem) every year from natural background sources of radiation (mostly radon). In setting limits, the EPA says it leans toward the conservative assumption that "…any increase in radiation exposure is accompanied by an increased risk of stochastic effects."

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Fracking (Industry) Myths: Facts & Stats (F&S)

Myth: Natural Gas is greenhouse cleaner.


Myth: Radon is spent before it reaches homes.


  • Radon's half life is 3.8 days, with 6-8 days travel through pipelines to NY from TX-LA. Marcellus gas (higher radiation levels) will reach NYC within hours. (Radon does not burn off.) (ibid.)

Myth: 100 years supply, US energy independence.


  • 100 years is a resource figure, that represents the total estimated energy even if it's NOT reachable. Wall St investment bankers use reserve figures, which measures what is currently reachable.

  • Nationally, reserve figure is roughly 30 years. The Marcellus resource figure is about 30 years, while the reserve figure is 4-6. (ibid.)

Myth: 80 years of SAFE fracking NYS


  • 80 years of conventional natural gas drilling, but high pressure horizontal hydraulic fracturing has never been done in NYS.

Myth: Creates Jobs


Myth: Boosts Local Economy


Myth: Well Regulated


Myth: No Link to Earthquakes


Myth: No Adverse Environmental Effect


Some Important Frack Numbers

4.5 million gallons

Amount of water to drill a horizontal hydraulic fracturing gas well. Total water usage approaches 700 million gallons, drilling a conventional gas/oil well uses 600,000 gallons.


Number of chemicals in frack fluids pumped into wells, protected as trade secrets.


How much of farck water is returned to surface. (This "brine" is radioactive and carries industry chemicals; stored in open-air 'ponds.')


Number of carcinogens identified by April 2011 study, House of Reps.


Number of truck trips to service each well.


Number of acres of forest cleared for each fracking well operation and roads.

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Coming soon, through a pipeline being built VERY near you: Radon!

Where's it come from, how's it get here, and what's it doing in my house

Marcellus shale has become a household word in the last few years, because of the reserves of natural gas that may be captured from between its shale rock plates. Imagine Frost and his 'Mending Fence' neighbor talking over one of those stacked, flat-rock fences that are iconic to the landscape of New England and upstate New York. Now, imagine that fence (sans Frost and his 'good' neighbor) about two miles under the ground. By an extractive mining process called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a mix of water, chemicals and sand are blasted at the stacked plates, to open them the way you'd pry open a clam. The natural gas is sucked in through pipes that carry it to the surface. Natural gas travels well in pipelines, but it can cause corrosion problems as well as build-ups that require radioactive waste removal.

Speaking of pipelines, one is snaking its way under and around us as you read. Former NYC Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Al Appleton, recently spoke about the Spectra Pipeline (

He discussed the radon threat posed by the Spectra pipeline that is routed through parts of NYC, Brooklyn and Staten Island. And although there has been almost no public hearings or news coverage, the project is nearly complete. Yes, while we and rest of the nation were going about our lives, and perhaps watching with one eye to see if Washington approves the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, some personhood-endowed corporation has been busy in our backyard:

The Radioactive Decay Chain and Water on Fire

Radon is part of the radioactive decay chain of uranium (uranium>radium>radon). It is a decay product of radium, which is present in the wastewater that comes back up from fracking wells. The industry calls this wastewater "brine", but the U.S. Geological Survey calls it lethally high in radium. In a December 2011 study, the USGS reported that samples of Marcellus shale wastewater collected in Pennsylvania fracking operations in 2009 was 3,609 times more radioactive than a federal safety limit for drinking water. It was 300 times higher than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for industrial discharges to water. And because of the amount of methane released in fracking operations, it is common to hear reports of tap water catching on fire. Yes, water is wet and on fire. (Anyone remember the Cuyahoga River in the 1960s, or Randy Newman's classic Burn on, Big River, Burn On?) YouTube is filled with examples of flaming fracked tap water:

What could be worse? Storms the size and ferocity of Irene and Sandy spreading the toxicity and radiation in and around a fracking site. I was upstate a few days after Irene. I saw propane gas tanks hanging from telephone poles, bridges pulverized by the sweep of downed trees bunched together like a massive battering ram, houses across fields from their foundations, drowned animals rotting, county roads split down the middle, one half drawn in and under by overflowed creeks, town streets covered and flowing with water so thick with mud sucked at our feet when you 'forded'. What could be worse? What would the winds and waters of an Irene or Sandy do to an above ground pipeline? Given that there's enough methane in water in contact with fracking to make it flammable, might storms spread water on fire through streets and towns, counties? How Armageddonish can this get?

New York's Governor Cuomo and New Jersey's Governor Christie both acknowledged that these 'super' storms were likely to be part of our future, and have introduced plans and designated monies to minimize their impact. No one doubts more storms that make weather fearful are on the way.

Perhaps that's part of what has motivated citizen and town board action across the state to pass 43 bans, 110 moratoria, 91 movements for prohibitions (bans or moratoria), as of January 2013. They are acting because neither state legislators nor the governor will act to protect them. And since 2012, three upstate New York towns have won courts challenge to their right to ban on natural gas drilling within their jurisdiction: Avon, in Livingston County, Middlefield, in Otsego County, and Dryden in Tompkins County. And by a unanimous city council vote, in 2011, Buffalo became the first city in the state to ban fracking.

What can we do?

Well, we can follow suit, write or call our governor and state assemblyman and senator. Tell them we're concerned about the increased cancer risk posed by residential radon radioactivity in natural gas. More specifically, in NY, you can tell them you support the passage of A6863, the radon protection bill, proposed by upper westside Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal (D - AD67; see article, and S4921 proposed by State Senator Diane J. Savino (D - SD23, Staten Island). The governor has the authority to bypass the legislature and ban fracking by executive order, and NYC's Working Families Party has been urging Governor Cuomo to do just that.

How can we get informed and involved? Through local or online orgs, meeting and sharing information; show up at public hearings, find a petition to sign, or write one yourself ( Don't like to read as though you're back in school doing a research paper? Then, meetings might be the way to go, watch Gasland, or drive to Pennsylvania — Dimock, Susquehanna County and Towanda, Bradford County (not for the squeamish or weak of heart). If we don't voice our opposition, those who profit at our peril will prevail. And such characters may bring Gordon Geekko to mind, he was a fictional character — this fight real.

Some fracivist orgs

Food & Water Watch:
United For Action:
Catskill Mountainkeeper:
MoveOn Petitions:
NYers Against Fracking:
Americans Against Fracking:
Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air is compiling a List of the Harmed (by fracking):

"Gentlemen, the world is dark, but it is not hopeless," Clarence Darrow from his closing statement in Wisconsin v. Kidd (Thomas Kidd was an organizer for Amalgamated Woodworkers International who tried to help the mostly immigrant workers at the Paine Lumber Company — the 'door capital of the world'. Paine, already paying the lowest wages in the US (95 cents a day), had been replacing men with women and children under 15 and paying them even less. Paine got the state to argue that union organizing was conspiracy.)



Richard Levine, an activist working to ban fracking in NYS, is the author of The Cadence of Mercy (Finishing Line Press 2014), That Country's Soul, A Language Full of Wars and Songs, Snapshots from a Battle, and A Tide of a Hundred Mountains. Bread, a poem from the new book, was recently featured in American Life in Poetry, former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's column. Levine's "The Talkin' Frackin' Blues," is on You Tube,