by Robert Shaffer
Kentucky needs to ban fracking everywhere in the state.
While there are many reasons why it needs to be banned, one reason is critical. It needs to be banned because, for decades to come, it will cause many Kentuckians to die from lung cancer. Hydraulic fracturing increases the release of radon. Radon is a poisonous gas buried deeply in the earth in layers of shale. It is an odorless, tasteless, and invisible radioactive gas produced from the decay of the element uranium.
The fracking process that brings natural gas to the surface can also bring radon and radium 226 which decays into radon for a long, long period of time. As it decays it can revert to a solid form that can lodge in lung tissue, damaging the cells and causing lung cancer. Radium 226 has a half-life of 1,600 years, the time it takes to lose one half of its radioactivity. Though the cancer caused by radon may not develop for decades after exposure, it is the leading cause of death in the world after smoking.
The fact that the damage is slow developing gives the fracking companies an advantage. They will be long gone 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now when radon-caused cancer takes its toll. And, if they are still around, how will anyone prove that radon released by fracking caused a loved-one’s death? They will be home free and once again the people will pay the price. Though smokers face the greater health risks, children are the most vulnerable.
In a letter written July 8, 1997, Christopher Goddard, Administrator of Marcum Wallace Hospital in Irvine, writing about the delayed effect of exposure to radium 226 and radon, said it best: “years from now when the effects are evident and manifested, it will be too late to act.”
Even without fracking, radon is released slowly from shale and accumulates in basements. In Pennsylvania, where over 7,000 fracking wells have been drilled since 2004, the concentrated radon in homes after fracking was 39 percent higher than in homes before fracking. According to state health officials, many of the radon levels before fracking were already unsafe.
Here, I want to share a personal story that relates to radon gas and lung cancer. My sister, Elaine Shaffer, after beginning her career as a flutist with symphony orchestras in Kansas City and Houston, decided to launch a solo career in Europe in 1953 in London’s Royal Festival Hall. One music critic wrote: ”She is one of the greatest musical performers now before the public.” Another critic attributed her unusual sustained lung power to the fact she trains like an athlete and runs two or three miles a day to keep her breathing strength in trim.” She began to spend more and more time in Switzerland, when she was not on tour. She loved hiking the spectacular Alpine Mountain trails. She was very careful with her diet. She was careful when entering a hotel room to disinfect doorknobs and handles. In 1955, she and her husband, Efrem Kurtz began living in Gstaad, Switzerland in a home where the main living quarters were below ground with windows above ground. Eighteen years later, in 1973, at age 47, at the peak of her career, considered the greatest flutist in the world, she died of lung cancer. She never smoked. It never made any sense to me until I searched the internet for “radon gas in Switzerland,” and found this statement: “Radon is responsible for 200-300 deaths a year in Switzerland.” Switzerland now bans fracking.
In the United States, according to the National Cancer Society, the figure is up to 22,000 deaths, per year. And this does not reflect what the numbers will be, 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, when people in places like Pennsylvania, begin to experience the delayed effect of exposure. What can we do to prevent this from happening in places like Red Lick Valley, Kentucky, one of the most beautiful places in the world. The people of Kentucky have witnessed for years the decapitation of magnificent mountains formed 480 million years ago. Will this generation stand by and permit slow poisoning of people we love? My answer to the question, what can we do, is contained in two related personal experiences.
In 1970, I was helping a friend, Dick Martin, build his home at the foot of Red Lick Road at the point where Rt. 594 joins Rt.421. My family was about to leave Kentucky and move back to New Jersey. One day, standing on the on the ridge where we were building the house, I looked down Red Lick Valley and told his wife, Judy Martin, if there is ever a farm for sale on Red Lick, let me know. Nine years later, Judy found one and called me. I came down, fell instantly in love with a farm not far from here, in Estill County. I was eager to buy it. But, when I met with the owners, I learned that they had recently signed a lease to allow the mining of oil shale. Intensive efforts were underway to get landowners up and down Red Lick to sign leases. For signing, they were to be paid one dollar per acre for each year the lease was in effect. The terms of theses lease were as bad as the worst broad form deeds signed in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky years earlier. For example the leases authorized the removal of the oil and other minerals “by any conventional methods.” When a landowner asked if this term included “strip mining,” the company representative said, no. He lied. A bold headline in the Berea Citizen on February 28, 1980 read, Strip Mining in Berea? And the article that followed said, “Apparently the answer is yes.” I told the owners we would not buy the farm unless they cancelled the oil and gas lease.
Fortunately they were able to cancel it, even though the lease stated only that oil companies could terminate a lease “at any time before or after mining operations are commenced.” Others who had signed leases began to look for a way out. When the situation came to the attention of the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, the consumer protection division investigated. They prepared a two-page questionnaire for landowners addressing the harmful and misleading items included in the leases and the deceptive methods used to get people to sign. For example, they asked is “is there anything written in your lease that you do not remember being there when you signed it?” or, “were you encouraged not to read the lease before signing?” After reviewing the questions, landowners were asked to send a description of their experience to the Attorney General’s office.
When he received enough responses, the Attorney General cancelled all of the leases. This was the best example of “government for the people” that I have ever seen. Imagine what Red Lick Valley would look like today if he had not done this.
My second experience occurred a little more than 10 years later when we were living on our Red Lick farm. Ashland Oil and Waste Management announced a plan to move 90,000 tons of radioactive soil from the Ashland oil fields in eastern Kentucky and dump it in the Estill County Landfill in Irvine, owned and managed by Waste Management. Ashland’s radioactive soil contained radium 226, the same cancer-causing substance released by fracking.
The Irvine landfill was located just across the road from the new Estill County High School. Also, it was only a little more than a mile from Burnamwood, a church summer camp belonging to Transylvania Presbytery, an organization that includes 90 of the Presbyterian Churches in Eastern Kentucky. Each summer Burnamwood offered a special camping week for children with cancer. Upon learning of the Ashland plan, Dorothy Gregory and another Estill County woman strongly opposed it and began to organize people who shared their objections.
After some promising results, they asked me to be the spokesperson for the organization they co-founded called, The Action Committee for the Citizens of Estill County. Assured this effort would be non-violent, I provided technical assistance to developing and implementing a strategy that included demonstrations, rallies, and visits to local and state officials, and other decision makers. The rallies filled a local school gymnasium. A delegation went to Frankfort and met with state officials including Crit Luallen, now Lieutenant Governor. I invited a child, accompanying our group, to come and stand with me next to her. I said this is what our visit here today is all about. Ronda Childers, a member of the Action Committee, conducted a one-woman protest outside Ashland’s Lexington office.
I arranged for another delegation to meet with the Editorial Board of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The editors saw the kind of people who made up the citizen’s organization. The result was a favorable editorial. Estill County’s Citizen Voice and Times, the Lexington TV stations, and the local cable system supported the citizens. Tom Fitzgerald at the Kentucky Resources Council assisted us. The Estill County Fiscal Court, the town councils of Irvine and Ravenna adopted resolutions. One Saturday a large group of citizens including men, women, young people and children picketed outside the landfill gate with signs opposing the plan to dump the radioactive soil in Irvine. Most of the people had never picketed anything. I presented to a resolution to a meeting of the Transylvania Presbytery, made up of ministers and elders from 90 Presbyterian churches in Eastern Kentucky. The resolution called on asked the Governor of Kentucky to oppose the dumping plan. The resolution was adopted and sent to the Governor.
One day, I went to talk with the landfill manager. The first words out his mouth were: “Are you an agitator?” It took me by surprise and I hesitated for a moment. Before I could answer, he said: “Because, we know how to handle agitators.” From rumors I had read about the waste disposal industry in the 60’s, I could only guess what that might mean. The Estill County Fiscal Court and the town councils of Irvine and Ravenna adopted resolutions supporting the Action.
Finally, In September of 1997, Waste Management agreed to withdraw its permit application from Kentucky’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. The citizens of a small Eastern Kentucky County had defeated two billion-dollar companies. Once again, David had defeated Goliath. These two stories show what organized citizens and a government working for the people can do to prevent the exploitation of this incredibly beautiful state.
Finally, I have three recommendations: First: Do your own Internet search for “fracking and radon gas,” to confirm the information I have shared in this article. While there, search for “places in the United States and the world that have banned fracking.” Second: Plan to attend a meeting of the nearest chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. You will find there people who also want to prevent fracking on Red Lick and the entire state. Third: Plan to attend or send a written comment to public Listening Session sponsored by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in Hazard, Kentucky on July 30, at 5:30 P.M. Written comments can be sent to: OilandGasComments@ky.gov