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Chelsea Now: Concerns Linger Over Radon Levels in Spectra Pipeline Gas

By Sam Spokony, 5/21/14

It’s been nearly seven months since the Spectra pipeline came online, pumping millions of cubic liters of natural gas to serve homes throughout New York City — but medical experts, administrators, residents and legislators are still raising urgent concerns about the possibility that the gas is also bringing dangerously high levels of radon.

Those concerns are part of what sparked numerous protests against the pipeline — which enters the city through the west side of Manhattan at the Gansevoort Peninsula — long before it became active.

Radon, a radioactive element that normally exists as a tasteless, odorless and colorless gas, is responsible for approximately 21,000 deaths each year across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Exposure to radon is also recognized by numerous medical and government sources to be the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers — and it’s been well documented that radon is found in natural gas.

However, the potential dangers of radon in this case have, up to this point, been considered inconsequential by some federal officials. In allowing the Spectra pipeline project to move forward as it currently exists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determined that levels of the radioactive element coming into New York City homes would be low enough so as not to require special monitoring.

But a number of city and state lawmakers, including State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, believe that ignoring the potential public health risks of those radon levels could be a grave mistake. Last year, Rosenthal introduced a bill that would require constant monitoring of the state’s natural gas delivery points — notably including the Spectra pipeline — in order to prevent radon levels from rising above a certain threshold.

That threshold would correspond to a recommendation by the United Nations’ World Health Organization that radon levels, in order to maintain public safety, should not exceed 2.7 picocuries per liter of gas (picocuries being the accepted unit of measurement among experts).

Rosenthal’s bill would require gas companies — such as Con Edison, which is the main supplier of gas through the Spectra pipeline — to implement a “radon mitigation response program” to ensure that radon levels in their natural gas do not exceed 2.7 picocuries per liter over any one-hour period. Along that same line, the bill would specifically make it illegal for a company to supply gas to consumers if its radon levels exceed that point, and would allow that state to impose a $25,000-per-day fine if that limit is exceeded and the gas supply is not shut off until acceptable levels are reached.

The Assembly held a hearing on the bill on May 9, at the legislative body’s offices in Lower Manhattan, led by Rosenthal and Assemblymembers Dick Gottfried, James Brennan and Nily Rozic. Gottfried and Brennan are both co-sponsors of the radon monitoring bill.

The hearing featured testimony from more than a dozen experts and advocates who support Rosenthal’s bill — but representatives from Con Ed and other major gas supply companies were notably absent, having declined the invitation to appear publicly.

“Despite all our best efforts, [those utility companies] have refused to participate in today’s discussion,” said Rosenthal at the hearing. “To say that I’m disappointed is an understatement. They deprive the public of the opportunity to learn more about the process and to have a lively discussion.

“Their actions cannot and will not hide the fact that there is no statewide monitoring system in place to deal with radon levels present in the natural gas that’s delivered to our homes,” she continued. “They have a vested interest in ensuring that the public is safe, and that’s why we’re holding this hearing today.”

Con Ed did, however, submit written testimony to the hearing. In that testimony, Andrea Schmitz, Con Ed’s vice president for environment, health and safety, argued that, contrary to Rosenthal’s bill, radon mitigation should instead be undertaken by federal entities — which have jurisdiction over all aspects of natural gas production, transmission and distribution — rather than regional supply companies. Schmitz also argued against the potential for shutting off gas under state orders, claiming that such a shutdown could “result in a threat to public health and safety.” In addition, she wrote that the additional costs of constantly testing radon levels in natural gas would result in “considerable increases in monthly utility bills.”

But those who actually showed up to speak at the May 9 offered a very different perspective — with many essentially claiming that the primary concern right now should be on getting more information about current radon levels in New York’s natural gas lines, in order to prevent a potential public health crisis.

“That’s why we need [Rosenthal’s] bill so badly,” said Albert Appleton, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and a Senior Fellow at the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design. “We need the information, and we need the remedial authority. We’re going down a path where people are going to have very large amounts of money, and very large amounts of institutional credibility and capital invested in the idea that natural gas is a radon-free, radon-safe fuel. We need to cut that debate off at the pass.”

Appleton also stressed that he believes the bill was also necessitated by the “gross negligence” involved in FERC’s decision against requiring radon mitigation at the Spectra pipeline. He, along with other panelists at the hearing, stressed concerns that natural gas from the radon-heavy Marcellus Shale — which is a major source of gas coming through the Spectra pipeline — could potentially bring levels of the radioactive element to 17 or even 30 picocuries at the New York City delivery point. That would, of course, be many times higher than the aforementioned “acceptable” level of 2.7 picocuries.

“I can tell you that the physician community is very concerned about the health risks of exposure to indoor radon,” said Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient at the May 9 hearing, representing the Medical Society of the State of New York.

That hearing had some immediate impact, as Rosenthal’s bill made a first step forward on May 13 by passing the Assembly’s Committee on Health.

“The government has to protect New Yorkers against the dangers posed by natural gas coming from the Marcellus Shale,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who, in addition to co-sponsoring the bill, chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Health. “This is a serious public health risk. Natural gas coming into our homes should be subject to strict radioactivity limits and monitoring.”

Councilmember Corey Johnson — whose efforts in opposition of the Spectra pipeline (and its potential radon impact) included being arrested on West St. during a protest last November — has meanwhile supported Rosenthal’s bill by co-sponsoring a City Council resolution calling for passage of the bill.

“With the Spectra pipeline pumping thousands of cubic square feet of natural gas into our community and radon being one of the leading causes of lung cancer, we must ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to prevent dangerous radon levels from entering our stoves or homes,” said Johnson, in a statement to Chelsea Now.

And on an even more local level, the Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA) — which has also long raised these concerns — recently applauded the Assembly for holding the May 9 hearing on Rosenthal’s bill.

CCBA President Bill Borock told Chelsea Now that his group was “very pleased” about the hearing, and hoped it would lead to the passage of Rosenthal’s bill.