Thursday, August 4, 2016

PA Congressmen can bring home the bacon – and jobs

An event today highlighted the opportunities to clean up the scars left by coal mining, put laid-off miners back to work and boost local economic development – if PA Congressmen seize the opportunity. The event, attended by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, marked the beginning of work to restore a 62-acre abandoned mine site in the community of Ehrenfeld in Cambria County. The $26 million project will remove more than three million tons of coal refuse, extinguish a five-acre fire and stop acid mine pollution from running into a tributary of the Little Conemaugh River.

Part of the restored land will be developed into a park that incorporates the Path of the Flood Trail which tells the story of the Johnstown Flood. The rest will be readied for future residential, commercial or industrial development. The work will be done by the Rosebud Mining company which will call back 40 laid-off miners and put heavy equipment to work that would otherwise sit unused. The project will last for three years.

This project is one of 14 in Pennsylvania that received a grant from the 2016 Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization Pilot Program Grant, and it’s the first to get underway. Pennsylvania received a total of $30 million. This program provides funding for abandoned mine reclamation projects that create jobs for out-of-work coal industry workers and promote economic development. A bill, the RECLAIM act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers would super-charge the program by providing Pennsylvania with $60 million a year for five years for similar projects.

Pennsylvania has more unreclaimed abandoned mine land in the country with Congressman Thompson’s district having the unfortunate distinction of the most in any Congressional district in the country. But he is currently not a sponsor of the bill. Out of 10 PA Congressmen who have abandoned mine lands that need to be reclaimed, as well as laid-off coal industry workers, only Doyle, Cartwright and Dent are co-sponsors.

Why wouldn’t the rest of the delegation Congressmen Thompson, Shuster, Kelly, Marino, Barletta, Rothus and Murphy, jump on this golden opportunity to bring some bacon home and feed some hungry and eager-to-work coal workers?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Refuse to accept a polluted Susquehanna

The stretch of the Susquehanna River that flows past Harrisburg is beautiful to look at. Because it is so shallow, the river was never navigable by large ships so the shoreline was largely spared the ugly development of loading docks and industrialization. Instead, in Harrisburg, stately mansions line the riverfront and on the opposite bank residents can view the river from the porches of modest homes. Today, developers of trendy restaurants capitalize on the scenic view by offering diners riverside tables on large open air decks.

But underneath the beauty is a troubled waterway. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has just officially recognized that this very stretch of river is not suitable for recreational uses like swimming, kayaking or jet skiing because it’s contaminated by high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. That means that contact with the water or swallowing some of it may make people sick. DEP also declared two of the river’s major tributaries in the Harrisburg area, the Conodoguinet and the Swatara, as also unfit for recreation and not clean enough to sustain abundant aquatic life. However, DEP refused to place the Susquehanna on a list of polluted waterways that would have compelled the state to set legally-binding pollution-reduction requirements.

DEP must do more to protect and restore the streams and the mighty river that reflect back to us our quality of life, give us places to fish, boat and swim and slake our thirst for drinking water. But if we want DEP to do more, we must give the agency more resources both monetary and politically. Since agriculture is by far the largest polluter of our waterways, we need to insist that DEP and our Conservation Districts finally enforce the water pollution laws that farmers have ignored for decades.

Our local governments must also step up. We must insist that our local governments use all the tools at their disposal to control polluted stormwater, and we must be willing to pay for it. Local governments must get serious about enforcing laws that keep sediment out of our streams and using zoning laws to control sprawl development that is paving over our watersheds.
And we have to take responsibility for keeping our own household pollutants out of the water by limiting our use of herbicides and pesticides and safely disposing of our medicines.

We must not accept water too polluted for recreation. Let’s put clean water at the center of a common purpose for the Harrisburg region.

Monday, August 1, 2016

When will Zika come to PA?

It’s no surprise that the first mosquito-borne cases of Zika arose in Florida. According to researchers at Climate Central, Florida has ideal climate conditions for the kind of mosquito that transmits the disease for most of the year. In fact, conditions in the Miami area where the first mosquito-caused Zika cases occurred are ideal for the mosquitoes that carry the disease almost year-round.

But the report also finds that mosquito season has been lengthening in cities around the country, including the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest and projects that there will be longer mosquito seasons in the future. The mosquito season in Pittsburgh has lengthened by 30 days since 1980, and as the climate warms, there will be more days of the warm, humid conditions that favor mosquito breeding


Since the kind of mosquito that carries Zika has been present in Pennsylvania in the past and a closely related species is common here in south and southeastern counties, the Department of Health has launched a Zika Virus Prevention and Awareness Campaign. The Department of Environmental Protection has expanded its mosquito monitoring program to include the kinds of mosquitos that carry Zika as well as those that carry West Nile.

Now that Zika cases caused by local mosquitoes have been confirmed in Florida, Pennsylvania’s preparations for containing the disease are more important. And as Pennsylvania develops its Clean Power Plan to cut the pollution that is warming the climate, it must address the reality of expanding insect-borne diseases that are spreading northward.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Pennsylvania Legislature’s War on the Environment

The General Assembly has launched a multi-front attack on environmental protections in the last two weeks. Republican legislative leaders are moving bills that would interfere with the development of a Clean Power Plan that cuts carbon pollution from power plants, prevent the update of the 1984 regulations that control pollution from conventional gas drilling, allow large industrial electricity users to opt out of the state’s successful energy efficiency program and shift the costs for the program onto residential consumers, and allow the objections of one legislator to put up roadblocks to the adoption of new regulations.

The bill to delay the development of the Clean Power Plan which the state is required to submit to the federal Environmental Protection Agency passed the Senate last week by a 41-9 vote. It would add complicated process and much delay to the effort to develop a sound plan that would begin Pennsylvania’s transition to a clean energy economy.

But the delays and the onerous processes outlined in the bill are really sideshows. The bill is really an attempt to intimidate the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into crafting a weak plan that will pass muster by coal and gas drilling industries and their allies in the legislature.

The first regulations to protect the air and water from pollution from shallow conventional gas wells were written in 1984 – 32 years ago. Conventional drilling causes contamination and water loss and penetrates the same aquifers that fracking does, and the conventional drillers have more violations of environmental laws than the frackers. New rules to modernize standards for the conventional drillers were poised for final adoption, but the House Environmental and Resources Committee tacked new language to kill the new regulations onto a bill previously passed in the Senate and quickly approved it.

Large commercial and industrial electricity users have decided that they do not want to pay their fair share for Pennsylvania’s energy efficiency program, so they want to opt out of the program. If the bill passes, it will undermine the program making it harder to achieve energy savings, and it will shift the costs for the program onto other ratepayers including residential customers.

And the legislature is also attempting to grind to a halt the development of new regulations whether they address environmental protection, public health, public safety or worker safety.

None of these bills is in the public interest. They threaten the state’s ability to protect the right to clean air and clean water that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees to its citizens. And this bald-faced anti-environmental legislation reveals just how pervasive the influence of industries’ unlimited campaign contributions and lobbying dollars are in the legislature. Instead of representing the wishes and interests of the voters in their districts, many of our senators and representatives are carrying polluted water for their political donors.

All these bills are hurtling toward passage by both chambers of the General Assembly in the next two weeks. When they pass, they will land on Governor Wolf’s desk. The Governor will then have to decide if he will stand up for the public or he will cave to the political pressure that has been purchased by industry.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The truth never got its pants on

There’s a famous quote variously attributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill to wit: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

Right now, no one knows that better than John Quigley who resigned as Department of Environmental Protection Secretary on Friday. Full disclosure – John is a friend of mine. I worked with him at PennFuture and we collaborated on several projects as independent consultants. I have known and admired John and his work for more than a decade.

John is smart, courageous, forthright, fair and pragmatic. He adheres to no straitjacket ideology, and makes decisions based on facts. He is a skilled administrator committed to serving the interests of the public. He makes himself accessible and understands that transparency in the workings of government is the best way to combat public cynicism and build public trust. He is, in short, an excellent public servant.

Quigley was brought down by a vicious, successful smear campaign aided by shoddy reporting of half-truths and outright lies that journalists did not bother to verify. The smear was orchestrated by Senator John Yudicak who was attempting to divert public attention away from his votes to kill regulations that strengthen and modernize oversight of gas drilling and his vote to block Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The kernel of truth at the center of the smear is that after the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee overwhelmingly approved the bills to undermine environmental protections, Quigley sent a blunt email to environmental advocates urging them to step up their efforts to support the new gas drilling regulations and the Clean Power Plan. Lies and innuendo then got layered around that kernel portraying Quigley as personally directing a campaign to inform Senator Yudicak’s constituents of his anti-environmental votes.

When contacted by reporters environmental organizations attempted to set the record straight, but their truthful assertions that Quigley had no role in the public education campaign informing Yudicak’s voters of his actions were characterized by the press as “denials.” Classic – when did you stop beating your wife.

Stories containing the false allegations citing “unnamed sources” jumped from newspaper to newspaper like a wildfire jumping fire lines. The heat became too intense, and Quigley burned at the stake.

Senator Yudicak, along with too many of our legislators, has been herded by the gas drillers onto a protect-gas-drilling-at-all-costs reservation. The senator, savoring his victory, said that “…Quigley was simply off the reservation.” With Quigley gone, he now expects DEP to be more reasonable in its regulation of the gas drillers.

Pennsylvania lost a courageous, principled public servant. And we’ll now get gas drilling regulations that the drillers approve. The rest of us will just have to live with them.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happy Earth Day - Not

April is Earth Month, but you wouldn’t know it at the state capitol in Harrisburg. April 12 was a dark day for Pennsylvania’s natural resources. The SenateEnvironmental Resources and Energy Committee took three actions that day to undermine protection of our air, land and water and our future.

The three matters before the seven Republicans and four Democrats on the committee were: a bill that would stop the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from submitting a Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants to the federal Environmental Protection Agency; a bill to stop badly-needed new gas drilling regulations; and, a recommendation for the Independent Regulatory Review Commission to disapprove the five-years-in-the-making update and strengthening of the gas drilling regulations.

The senators on the committee swiftly approved both bills voting eight to three on the bill to kill the gas drilling regulations, and ten to one to derail the Clean Power Plan. All the Republicans and Senator Yudichak voted to kill the gas drilling regulations. Only Senator Dinnimen voted against delaying the Clean Power Plan. The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee piled on also voting to recommend disapproval of the gas drilling regulations and introducing a resolution to stop them.

These anti-environmental actions are completely out of step with the public’s overwhelming support for strong regulation and oversight of the gas industry and for reducing greenhouse gas pollution and transitioning to a clean energy future. Unfortunately, we all know why the senators would risk the ire of the voters – as PennLive has reported, they’ve been the grateful recipients of almost $43 million in campaign contributions from the energy and natural resources industries over the last 15 years.

Blocking action on these two top priority environmental problems not only threatens our air, water and climate, they stand in the way of technological innovation and the economic development and jobs that addressing the problems would create. The gas drilling industry could go a long way toward regaining lost public support if they accepted the necessary regulations and set about deploying best practices and innovating to reducing drilling’s threats to water resources and air pollution. For example, the new regulations would require drillers to phase out the use of huge toxic wastewater impoundments – a practice that many drillers have already abandoned, but some still use despite a woeful track record of leaks.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan will detail how the state will cut carbon pollution from dirty power plants by 33 percent by 2030. DEP Secretary John Quigley said the goal is to meet the required reductions and maintain the ability to generate enough power to continue to be a net exporter of electricity to other states. Clean energy industries already employ more Pennsylvanians than gas drilling. The Clean Power Plan will put even more to work building more solar and wind power and aggressively deploying energy efficiency technologies.

These anti-environment bills will be waiting on the Senate floor when the senators return from the primary election break to Harrisburg on May 9. They will have the opportunity to give DEP the tools it needs to protect the public from gas drilling air and water pollution and to reject the effort to keep Pennsylvania from reducing carbon pollution from dirty power plants by opposing the bills. The senators might want to keep in mind that 51 percent of Americans want to ban fracking and 64 percent are very worried about climate change according to recent Gallup polls.

Even though the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committees voted to stop environmental progress during Earth Month, the whole General Assembly has the opportunity to reject those actions in May. The members can demonstrate their independence from the gas drilling and fossil fuel industry and act in the public interest. The Pennsylvania legislature can either allow the stronger gas drilling regulations and the common sense Clean Power Plan to move forward, or they can obstruct the path to a cleaner, safer and more prosperous future.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Wagner's money and the budget impasse

So, there’s this story circulating in the halls of the state capitol building about a showdown between Senator Scott Wagner and Senator Jake Corman, the Senate Majority Leader. The story goes that Wagner rounded up a posse of senators, approached the majority leader, and threatened to stage a coup to remove him from his leadership position if he allows a vote in the Senate to raise revenue to fund the state budget. Each of the three times I’ve heard the tale, the size of the posse grew – first time I heard it, Wagner had six senators in tow; next time I heard it the posse grew to 10; and, the last time I heard it there were 13 of them.

Whatever the details, this story is consistent with others that have Wagner doing everything he can to thwart compromise on the state budget. His influence reaches across the building into the state House. Wagner sometimes watches House sessions from the gallery as a reminder to Republican members not to dare commit the heresy of compromise by voting to raise the revenue needed to pay the state’s bills.

Few, if any Republicans dare to stand up to the first-term senator from York County who is insisting on, and enforcing, a no-tax ideology.

Here’s why. In 2015 Senator Wagner made a total of $208,461.98 in campaign contributions. Most of this, $116,880, went to candidates for the State Supreme Court who lost to a Democratic sweep. He gave $50,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, making him the largest individual donor to the committee.

There are Republicans in the General Assembly who will support compromise and vote to raise taxes as the near passing of a compromise budget just before Christmas demonstrated. Or there were – most moderates are now hunkered down fearing that if they leave the Wagner reservation, all that campaign contribution fire-power will be turned on them.