From Borscht Belt to a Contaminated Gasland — It’s No Joke

There’s an uproar in the Catskills – long the iconic vacation getaway for Jews from New York City – over plans to do extensive hydraulic fracturing for gas, a process known as fracking.

Fracking uses massive amounts of water and toxic chemicals to break apart shale formations deep below the ground and release the gas within them. This is seen as a contamination threat to drinking and groundwater. And now an environmental organization on Long Island, New York has issued a report that finds that fracking can also bring to the surface large quantities of radioactive materials if the shale contains them – and the shale in the Catskills has them in major concentrations.

Radioactive Radium-226, widespread in the Marcellus Shale region in upstate New York – on which the Catskills sit – has a half-life of 1,600 years.

A half-life is how long it takes for a radioactive substance to lose half its radiation. It is multiplied by between 10 and 20 to determine the “hazardous lifetime” of a radioactive material, how long it takes for it to lose half its radioactivity. Thus Radium-226 remains radioactive for between 16,000 to 32,000 years.

the report done for Grassroots Environmental Education of Port Washington says:

Horizontal hydrofracking for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region of New York State has the potential to result in the production of large amounts of waste materials containing Radium-226 and Radium-228 in both solid and liquid mediums.

The report’s author E. Ivan White, spent 30 years as a staff scientist for the National Council on Radiation Protection, chartered by the U.S. Congress.

Importantly, the type of radioactive material found in the Marcellus Shale and brought to th surface by horizontal hydrofracking is the type that is particularly long-lived, and could easily bio-accumulate over time and deliver a dangerous radiation dose to potentially millions of people long after the drilling is over.

Radioactivity in the environment, especially the presence of the known carcinogen radium, poses a potentially significant threat to human health

The report lays out “potential pathways of the radiation” through the air, water and soil. Through soil it would get into crops and animals eaten by people.

Radium causes cancer in people largely because it is treated as calcium by the body and thus becomes deposited in bones. It can mutate bones cells causing cancer.

The website for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, in a “Natural Gas Drilling Overview,” notes that: “The Marcellus Shale is a layer of deep sedimentary rock, deposited by an ancient river delta, with the remains of it now forming the Catskill Mountains.”

Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy has been organizing a campaign to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to “say ‘No!’ to fracking.”  It has also collaborated with American actor/activists Robert Redford and Debra Winger in anti-fracking radio spots produced by Josh Fox, the director of the movie Gasland. The film, about fracking, was a nominee last year for an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature. It has received numerous other awards.

Cuomo’s predecessor as governor, David Paterson, imposed a moratorium on fracking. Cuomo’s most recent position was that he would await a review of the health impacts on fracking by the New York Department of Health before making a decision.

Writer Karen Charman who lives in Shandanken, New York, in the Catskills, is concerned that “Governor Cuomo seems intent on finding ways” to allow fracking to happen.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation seems supportive of fracking. On the issue of the process unleashing radioactivity, the White Report notes that a 1999 study done by the department, “assisted by representatives from 16 oil and gas companies,” and a 2011 Environmental Impact Statement, both took a “cavalier attitude toward human exposure to radioactive material.”

This comes in the context of a scandal involving fracking studies. Last week, a University of Texas study issued earlier this year, on which Dr. Charles Groat was lead investigator, which found fracking safe, was withdrawn after a panel at the university agreed it was tainted by conflict of interest. The Public Accountability Initiative in Buffalo, New York in July had revealed that Groat has been receiving large amounts of money from the Plains Exploration and Production Company, which is heavily involved in fracking.  He also holds $1.6 million in stock in the company, said the group. The group describes itself as “a non-profit, public interest research organization investigating power and corruption at the heights of business and government.”  In May it did an investigation, too, into a new Shale Resources and Society Institute at the University of Buffalo, which it linked to industry funding. The university subsequently ordered the institute shut down.

“Natural Gas Fracking Industry May Be Paying Off Scientists” was the headline of a July article in Wired magazine that explored the situation.

In the Catskills, the extensive fracking program planned is already having an impact. The New York Times in September ran a story headlined “Gas Drilling Jitters Unsettle Catskills Sales,” telling how in this area “coveted for its pristine water, pastoral landscapes and relative proximity to New York City,” real estate “listings are languishing” because of the prospect that New York State will open the region to hydraulic fracturing…There is concern that the drilling will not only ruin the natural environment but also depress property values.”

And it’s not just upstate New York that could be affected. On Long Island, downstate, legislation has been enacted in both Nassau and Suffolk Counties to prevent water contaminated by fracking from being sent to sewage treatment plants on the island.

Several plants have been designated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as capable of treating the fracking-contaminated water in Nassau and Suffolk. “This ban recognizes that we should not compromise our environment,” says Nassau County Legislator David Denenberg, its author.  In Suffolk, the law put into effect notes that chemicals which are “known carcinogens” are used in fracking and its sewage plants “discharge treated water into” waterways some of which “feed into Long Island’s sole source aquifer.”

A new bill is now before the Suffolk County Legislature “prohibiting the use of hydraulic fracturing brine on county property or roadways.” This measure states that “some businesses which perform hydraulic fracturing would like to dispose of such brine by providing it to local governments as a road de-icing agent for use in the winter.”

Doug Wood, associate director of Grassroots Environmental Education and editor of the White report, comments: “Once radioactive material comes out of the ground along with the gas, the problem is what to do with it. The radioactivity lasts for thousands of years….A terrible burden would be placed on everybody that comes after us.  As a moral issue, we must not burden future generations with this. We must say no to fracking—and implement the use of sustainable forms of energy that don’t kill.”

The potentially high levels of radioactivity to come from the fracking planned in upstate New York is discussed in another report by Grassroots Environmental Education that cites a study last year by the U.S. Geological Survey which found the wastewater from 11 existing “vertical” fracking wells upstate had “levels of radium…more than 1,000 fold the EPA maximum contaminant level for drinking water.”  It was noted that there would be more radium released from “horizontal” fracking wells because of their “extended length.”

The prospect of unleashing, through fracking, radium, a silvery-white metal, has a parallel in the mining of uranium on the Navajo Nation.  The mining began on the Navajo Nation, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, during World War II as the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program to build atomic bombs, sought uranium to fuel them. The Navajos weren’t told that mining the uranium, yellow in color, could lead to lung cancer. Lung cancer became epidemic among the miners and then spread across the Navajo Nation from piles of contaminated uranium tailings and other remnants of the mining. The Navajos gave the uranium a name: leetso or yellow monster.  

Left in the ground, it would do no harm. But taken from the earth, it has caused disease and death—why the Navajo Nation outlawed uranium mining in 2005. Radium, a silvery-white monster, must also be left in the earth, not unleashed with fracking, to inflict disease and death on people today and many, many generations into the future.

Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Lou Goldstein, Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, Fanny Brice, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Myron Cohen, Phil Silvers, Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, Red Buttons, Mal Z. Lawrence, Joan Rivers, Jack E. Leonard, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman were among the many Borscht Belt comedians who kept them laughing up in the Catskills.  Those lovely mountains and the bungalow colonies and hotels that are left, and the people—in recent decades the Catskills have become a center for Orthodox Jews—are now at ground zero in New York for fracking.

It’s no laugh.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.