Monday, October 10, 2011

Opposition to Natural Gas is Bad for Your Health

I am reminded of the Great Hoax of 1835.

Recently more than 250 "physicians and medical professionals" signed and sent letter to Governor Cuomo. The claim is that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas within the Marcellus Shale poses a significant public health risk and the granting of drilling permits must be delayed until a full an proper accounting of those risks can be assessed. Now I am not interested in impinging on anyone's right to petition their government for redress of grievances. Nor do I disagree with the underlying tenet of the letter. That is, the health of a community must be considered, the implications of a particular action must be assessed and accounted for and that when appropriate, regulations put in place to account for potential outcomes. In spite of the rhetoric, "Friends of Natural Gas" are not interested in seeing their communities poisoned with tainted water, nor the air made unbreathable by noxious chemicals and fumes. On that at least there may be some agreement.

In reality these doctors, nurses, PA's, NP's, social workers, and veterinarians have a problem. The truth is they have no evidence to support their claims and in end are left asking for more time and more study. "The trouble with health problems near gas tracking"is that any evidence is purely anecdotal. Investigative journalism sites like Pro Publica has spent considerable time and effort tracking down some of the complaints made by individuals across the country, but in the end are left little evidence.

"....[E]nvironmental epidemiologists warn that proximity and correlation don't add up to proof. Even when symptoms and contamination occur in the same place, they say, it doesn't necessarily mean the contamination caused the symptoms.

"You have a community where there is a putative exposure, and a community with putative illness," said Daniel Teitelbaum, a toxicologist who has spent years examining health issues around drilling and helped frame some of the early research in Colorado. "But you can't say whether the people exposed are the people who are ill."


But whether the more serious symptoms have anything to do with drilling is a complete unknown. "You hear and see everything you can possibly imagine, from miscarriages to multiple sclerosis to brain tumors," he said. "There is no way to document whether those things are real or not real."

That's why a health registry—a database to cross reference patterns of symptoms and locations where they occur with water and air tests—is so important, he said. Without this context, complaints from residents may not be taken seriously by doctors or environment officials, partly because people respond to chemical exposures differently. Their symptoms can vary widely and can be difficult to recognize.

"If someone comes in and just says I can't think straight, or I'm really tired or I have headaches, that's not measureable," said Dr. Kendall Gerdes, a Denver-based physician who specializes in ecological exposure cases and has seen a number of patients complaining about the gas patch. "Therefore it's considered psychosomatic by most doctors' training."

A health registry seems like a great idea. One I am sure would be supported by the energy industry. It would allow for epidemiologists, physicians, toxicologists and others to investigate symptoms and determine a causal relationship with shale gas production or not. Unfortunately, this common sense type of approach is nowhere to be found in the letter presented to Governor Cuomo. Instead, we find requests for consideration of yet another Health Impact Assessment which would do nothing to prove or disprove the correlation between shale gas production and illness. It would though, slow down gas production in the state by months, perhaps years, which in the end I suspect is the goal.

The health risks, regardless of the penumbra of symptoms are ultimately related to exposure, and exposure can only come from a few sources. Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units released a report in August of 2011 articulated the sources as water contamination, air pollution, and noise pollution. In a yet unpublished manuscript and a source article for the letter Theo Colborn, et al makes essentially the same argument. These sentiments are echoed by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The key risks and impacts of shale gas and shale gas processes and development can be divided as follows:

  • contamination of groundwater by fracturing fluids/mobilised contaminants arising from:o wellbore/casing failure; and/oro subsurface migration;
  • pollution of land and surface water (and potentially groundwater via surface route) arising from:

o spillage of fracturing additives; and

o spillage/tank rupture/storm water overflow from liquid waste storage, lagoons/pits containing cuttings/drilling mud or flowback water;

  • water consumption/abstraction;
  • waste water treatment;
  • land and landscape impacts;
  • impacts arising during construction:o noise/light pollution during well drilling/completion; o flaring/venting; and
    o local traffic impacts.

The point is, for symptoms to occur, exposure has to take place, and for it to become a public health issue, must do so on a rather grand scale. NYS DEC Commissioner Joe Martens participated in an electronic town hall today and answered questions pertaining to potential health impacts and states.

DEC has fully considered the impact fracking could potentially have on public health and our communities. For example, the State Dept. of Health provided information (Chapter 5 in the dSGEIS) on the potential toxic effects of chemicals used in the process. We examined the history of spills and other problems in other states where the process was used. Most importantly, DEC carefully considered every possible way that people could be exposed to those chemicals and consulted with the State Dept. of Health about how to prevent that exposure. DEC’s approach is to address the potential causes of exposure to prevent them from happening in New York State. If there are no pathways of exposure in the first place, adverse health impacts cannot occur. That is why DEC has designed the most stringent set of requirements in the nation – to prevent contamination of our natural resources and thus eliminate human exposure pathways.

Indeed, "if there is no pathway of exposure in the first place, adverse health impacts cannot occur". This does not imply that local accidents haven't and won't occur, they do and will, but the isolated risks can and has been mitigated against in the recently published dSGEIS.

While I posit that water contamination is a much overplayed concern, I will concede that air pollution remains potentially problematic. I agree with the position of John Hanger as articulated in the NYT.

Air pollution is more of an Achilles' heel for drilling in the Northeast, he said last week, pointing to spikes in emissions that have followed natural gas development in other parts of the country.

Thousands of natural gas wells are expected to be drilled in Pennsylvania over the next few years, requiring a fleet of construction equipment, diesel engines and compressor stations. Together, they could be a large new source of smog-forming emissions along the Northeast corridor, much of which still struggles with old air quality standards at a time when U.S. EPA is preparing to make the rules stricter.

"If the industry ubiquitously uses the dirtiest choices, it won't fit into the Northeast," Hanger said. "It won't happen. There will be suits from New York, New Jersey, everywhere. From environmental groups. Maybe even from Pennsylvania state officials, trying to stop that.

"That's a real issue," he added. "The chemicals coming back up from fracking is not."

I would like to play the devil's advocate here for a bit though. Currently the United States gets 21% of its energy production from coal. As of 2005 New York had 48 coal-fired generating units at 17 locations producing 4,273 MW of capacity, representing 10% of the states total electric capacity. According to the EPA coal and oil fired plants are responsible for a public health disaster. On a yearly basis this energy source is responsible for 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 non fatal heart attacks, 120,000 asthma cases and 11,000 episodes of acute bronchitis cases among children. In June of 2006 a study conducted by West Virginia Health Sciences Center concluded that coal was responsible for significant increases in morbidity and mortality in Appalachia.

While coal mining contributed $8 billion to Appalachia in terms of economic impacts, the costs of shortened life spans associated with coal operations ranged from $16.979 billion to $84.544 billion, the study found. Figures are from 2005, the latest year for which mortality rates were available.

"Those who are falling ill and dying young are not just the coal miners," Hendryx says. "Everyone who lives near the mines or processing plants or transportation centers is affected by chronic socioeconomic weakness that takes a toll in longevity and health."

Coal mining areas in Appalachia experience almost 11,000 more deaths each year compared with comparable areas elsewhere in the nation, with approximately 2,300 of those deaths related to environmental factors such as air and water pollution made worse by mining, Hendryx says. He adds:

"We know that in West Virginia we have high rates of poverty and illness, and we've been led to believe by government and industry that the coal companies help by creating jobs. But that's not true. Premature mortality is strongly linked to socioeconomic conditions where people live, and the evidence is that those areas of West Virginia that do not have coal do better. They develop economic alternatives."

While much has been made of noise pollution as a potent health risk I will not address it here other than to say, really? This is obviously a filler argument and as such, not worth debating.

When comparing the energy mix and number of deaths related to each of the main sources worldwide the effects of coal use becomes clear. Coal accounts for 161 deaths/TWh globally, while natural gas accounts for only 4 deaths/TWh. This highlights that while no energy source is without some risk, coal is responsible for a death rate of four times that of the closest energy source and more than 40 times that of natural gas.

This doesn't begin to account for the environmental impacts of coal. With this information in mind I have to wonder why letters aren't being sent to Governor Cuomo to shut down the coal-fired plants in New York and replace them with natural gas. Undoubtedly, the transportation costs would be minimal. Already we are seeing a trend where traditional coal-fired plants are being replaced by natural gas. New York could not only reduce its environmental impact, improve the health of its citizens, but also save money. Maybe I should write a letter?

It has been interesting to watch the evolution of the anti-drilling arguments. Initially we were all told that hydrofracking fluid would migrate up from the depths to pollute and contaminate our precious fresh water aquifers. The shining light to of scrutiny has effectively put to risk these claims. Then we were informed that wastewater would be so high in radiation that it would despoil our waterways, but the results of studies reported on here, here, here and here have put to rest this myth. Then is was the hazardous yet ubiquitous methane. This, we were told would dump as much or more carbon dioxide, than would coal, into the atmosphere thereby irrevocably plunging the region into eternal summer. This study has been effectively debunked by several subsequent studies. Then we learn of methane migrating into fresh water wells from faulty well head construction. Again, this turns out to not quite be the case in spite of the widespread publicity. One thing we did learn from the Duke study though is that there was no frack fluid contamination. The truth is natural gas has the potential to be the best thing to happen to New York since the Erie Canal. The economic benefits are clear to anyone willing to look due south, the regulatory framework is sound and thorough, and the risks to health are easily overcome with oversight and professionalism.

It was not so long ago that natural gas production was lauded by environmentalists throughout the nation as the optimal "transition fuel" away from coal and petroleum toward a truly green energy technology, but now that the prospect of energy production begins to hit close to home the concerns of coal production and use as an environmental and public health disaster has dissipated as the rhetoric against gas has escalated. Natural gas production is safer today than it was in July 26, 2009 when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stated,

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and is extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can cause serious water, land use, and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts are dwarfed by the disastrous holocaust of coal and can be mitigated by careful regulation.

The giant advantage of a quick conversion from coal to gas is the quickest route for jumpstarting our economy and saving our planet.

He was as right then as he is wrong now. It is a shame what political gamesmanship will do to a person.

Letter to Cuomo on Fracking

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