Experts Air Serious Concerns Before New York Fracking Decision
By Sharon Kelly
Two recent court decisions in New York state upheld the right of towns to use zoning laws to limit or even ban fracking within their borders. Other states and cities such as Dallas, Maryland and North Carolina, are still trying to figure out whether, and if so how, to proceed with new drilling.
But the big decision that concerned citizens are watching is the one to be made by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about his state’s moratorium. New York received more than 40,000 public comments on fracking and is plowing through them now.
The state has yet to publish those documents on the web, but DeSmogBlog has obtained many of them. Here is our initial shortlist of comments that offer the most important warnings and useful insights.
A Hidden Threat?
One of the most overlooked but potentially dangerous public health issues relating to unconventional gas drilling is radon. This odorless and radioactive gas comes up from the wells mixed with the gas that gets piped to consumers. Highly carcinogenic, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, just behind cigarette smoking, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In his comments, Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, director of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, concludes that radon levels in the gas that will come from Marcellus and likely be delivered to nearly 12 million New York residents will be far higher than current levels. As a result, “the potential number of fatal lung cancer deaths due to radon in natural gas from the Marcellus shale range from 1,182 to 30,448,” he writes.
The threat is greater for New Yorkers and others living within the Marcellus shale because the gas not only is believed to carry higher radon levels but it also has far less time for the radon in the gas to decay since it is being transported shorter distances to consumers. Most gas used by New Yorkers presently comes from Texas and Louisiana rather than from Pennsylvania or New York.
Mr. Resnikoff isn’t alone in sounding this alarm. James W. Ring, a physics professor at Hamilton College, previously raised similar concerns.
The Feds Weigh In
In an unusually cautionary series of comments, the U.S. EPA runs down a litany of more than 200 problems with New York’s proposed regulations. The letter, in effect, emphasizes that New York needs to substantially strengthen its oversight of the industry before allowing shale gas drilling.
The U.S. EPA objects that New York underestimates how radioactive the waste from the Marcellus will be citing tests from Pennsylvania, and suggests rules that would make fracking off-limits for more than a half-million acres across the state. They express concern that the state may not have the budget and manpower to enforce the necessary drilling rules.
First Boom, Then Bust
The oil and gas industry love to talk about the jobs that new drilling will bring to New York. What the industry doesn’t like to discuss are questions about who gets those jobs, how long they last and the hidden costs that come with drilling.
For a more sober and honest discussion of these issues, look to economists Jannette M. Barth and Edward C. Kokkelenberg who explain the financial boom and bust cycles created by drilling. In their letter to the state, these economists add that New York may never see the tax revenues projected, because the report relies on old data that overstates how much gas drillers can produce.
They also describe how the state over-estimates drilling’s benefits by ignoring the hidden impact the industry will have on some of upstate New York’s most lucrative businesses, such as farming, tourism, hunting and winemaking.
Private Gain at Public Risk
The oil and gas industry has a long history of privatizing profits while socializing risk. Anna K. Sears of Rochester, N.Y. offers a nice explanation of the latest incarnation.
She describes how many gas leases allow companies to truck in tankers with chemicals, transport flammable gas and toxic waste, operate heavy equipment 24/7 and store gas underground, for years, all in a person’s back yard. Since mortgages forbid this kind of activity, a growing number of banks won’t give new loans on homes with gas leases because they don’t meet Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standards.
When it comes time to sell their homes, people who have leased their land may run into serious problems. Every banker, insurance executive, housing official and mortgage specialist should read this comment very closely.
And The List Goes On
In comments signed by Pete Seeger, Ralph Nader, and dozens of government officials, scientists, and doctors, Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, offers an unusually comprehensive list of concerns with proposed drilling in New York.
Mr. Hang’s letter calls for a ban on sending drilling wastewater, which is highly contaminated and often radioactive, to sewage treatment plants, which discharge into rivers upstream from public drinking water intakes. It also points out that gas companies are eying not only the Marcellus shale, but also another layer called the Utica shale, which is deeper so fracking requires more water and creates more wastewater.
Mr. Hang skewers New York regulators for repeating one of the industry’s favorite but utterly false mantras—that fracking has never led to groundwater contamination. He also quotes from internal emails where state officials talk about staffing levels that are woefully inadequate and a threat to public health.
You want one-stop shopping for reasons that New York should take it slow? Look no further.
For more information, click here.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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