Monday, September 8, 2014

Hatfield Meats moves in a more humane direction

When did eating get so complicated? Each meal we eat represents a choice we have made from intertwined options - a web of family traditions, culture, health, financial resources, the latest fad, geography and even politics. The one option that is off the table is not making a choice – whether you’re eating a home cooked vegan meal or scarfing down an industrial fast food burger, you’ve made a choice whether you know it or not.

I am not a vegetarian. I eat meat, and I have chosen to face the ethical challenges that eating the flesh of a sentient creature presents. So I am choosy about where and from whom I buy meat. I care about how the animals were raised, whether or not they were crammed into indoor facilities and stuffed with antibiotics and growth hormones. I care what happens to the waste the animals produce, and I care about the long-term economic health of the farmers and the viability of agriculture. The choices I make are not perfect, but I can live with them.

So I haven’t bought a Hatfield Meats product in probably more than a decade. Hatfield raises pigs in confined feeding operations that produce enormous amounts of waste. Their contracting farmers have no control over how the animals are raised or what they eat. In fact in many cases, the farmer goes into debt to put up the building to Hatfield specifications, and Hatfield often even places a contracted manager in the facility to run the operation. The farmer is responsible for paying off the debt and disposing of the waste. In return, farmers receive the security of a set price for each pig delivered to market.

So it was with interest I learned that Hatfield will phase out the especially cruel gestation crates for pregnant and nursing sows and move to “free to roam” pig pens by 2022. The change was in response to customer demands that prompted big pork buyers like Costco to signal that they will not buy from suppliers that use crates.

I, for one, need to understand this better before I end my personal boycott of Hatfield. But my choice and the choices of thousands of other consumers to avoid meat produced by inhumane methods has begun to create change.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DEP falls behind on Susquehanna River cleanup

There is no disagreement that agricultural pollution is the key culprit in the deteriorated state of the Susquehanna River. Nitrogen, phosphorus and soil washing off farm fields are the leading pollutants that cause algae blooms, deplete oxygen from the water and destroy healthy habitat for fish and other aquatic life in the river and do the same damage when the water reaches the Chesapeake Bay.

Cleaning up agricultural pollution in the Susquehanna is at the center of the multi-state effort to restore the Chesapeake, and Pennsylvania is legally responsible for meeting pollution reduction goals contained in the cleanup plan. But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is failing to enforce agricultural water protection laws, so the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is stepping in to do its own inspections of farms, train DEP personnel and monitor DEP’s use of federal funds meant to help the state curb farm pollution.

Conservation Pennsylvania’s Kim Snell-Zarcone did a study of DEP’s performance under a federal $1.5 million Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program grant meant to expand the agency’s enforcement capacity. Most of this funding was supposed to help DEP inspect more small farms, the source of much pollution. Kim’s findings include:

  • ·       Almost half of the inspections were conducted at large farms which DEP is already required to do;
  • ·       More than half the farms did not keep adequate records so regulators are unable to track the implementation of pollution control activities like proper manure spreading;
  • ·       A quarter of the farms violated the law and polluted a waterway;
  • ·       DEP is not adequately enforcing laws that require farmers to maintain structurally sound manure storage facilities.

Cleaning up agricultural pollution in the Susquehanna River is also a focus of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and its executive director, John Arway, is frustrated with DEP’s failure to take strong action to curb farm pollution. This week he sent a letter to the EPA asking it for more help in enforcing the law and developing a better plan to clean up the river.

The Susquehanna needs its own pollution cleanup plan and a strong commitment from DEP to enforce the laws that require farms to control water pollution. EPA’s latest action to step in is welcome, and declaring the river as impaired would give all the agencies working on Susquehanna cleanup a powerful tool to help get the job done.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

DEP not strong regulator or enforcer of gas drilling

The Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) oversight and enforcement of gas drilling is so poor that it cannot adequately safeguard water supplies in the gas fields. That’s the stark finding of Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s review of DEP’s performance monitoring drilling impacts to water quality.

The audit, which covers the years 2009 – 2012, found that:
  • ·       DEP routinely ignores the law requiring it to issue administrative orders which compel drillers to either clean up contaminated water supplies or supply replacement water. Instead, they try to get drillers to privately deal directly with affected property owners to arrive at a solution. This allows drillers to avoid getting cited for a violation.
  • ·       DEP does not provide people who complain about contaminated water with investigation reports. Many people who file complaints go for months without knowing whether or not or how badly their water is damaged.
  • ·       DEP’s complaint tracking system cannot answer simple questions like how many complaints has the department received.
  • ·       Because of an outdated and ambiguous inspection policy and chronic understaffing, DEP cannot ensure that shale gas wells are inspected in a timely manner.
  • ·       DEP does not provide easy, well-organized access to information about shale gas drilling and provides no information about contamination of water.
  • ·       DEP does not adequately track inspections. It does not post all the information required by law, and the data it does post has a high error rate. Most of the inspectors’ comments are not online.
  • ·       DEP’s use of information technology is so badly managed and inconsistent that the audit determined it to be “not sufficiently reliable.”

DEP’s response is unsurprising and disappointing. It did not agree with any of the audit’s findings, although interestingly, it did agree in whole or part with most of the Auditor General’s 29 recommendations for improvement.

The key conclusion of the audit is, “DEP needs to be a stronger regulator and use its enforcement powers consistently.” 

The Corbett administration’s DEP considers the gas drillers to be its first-class clients instead of a hazardous industrial activity that requires strict oversight and enforcement. People stuck with contaminated water end up in a bureaucratic hell where DEP treats them like second-class citizens.

The fastest way to change DEP attitude toward the drillers and ordinary citizens is to change administrations. That opportunity comes in November.

Friday, July 18, 2014

DCNR - addicted to gas

On Friday, a judge issued an order that will stop the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources from leasing more state forest and park land for gas drilling – at least for a while. The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) sued the state to stop it from using revenue from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for anything other than what it was meant for – recreation, conservation, dams and flood control. When the Corbett administration wanted to lease more forest and park land for gas drilling to help balance this year’s state budget, PEDF asked a judge to stop it.

The state budget that was passed with only Republican votes, is balanced with a host of gimmicks and one-time transfers, and among them is $95 million that is supposed to come from new gas leases on public forest and park land. The judge’s order is a compromise – DCNR will not lease more land for gas drilling, but it will be allowed to use money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund for its operations until the underlying case about the uses of the fund is finally decided. The decision is expected before the end of this year.

The truth is – DCNR is addicted to gas money. Almost all of its budget now comes from gas drilling royalty payments. Without that money, it simply could not keep the doors of the parks open or carry out the most basic conservation management functions.

There is an alternative – a severance tax on gas drilling on every well – both on public and private land. A severance tax along with a tax on smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes and closing corporate tax loopholes would bring in enough revenue to fund DCNR operations and a whole lot of other important government services.

The judge has given our forests and parks a reprieve and prevented DCNR from becoming even more dependent on gas money. Now, we hope the judge will show some tough love, take away DCNR’s gas money drug and send the department to rehab to rediscover its core mission – and that isn't raising money to plug state budget holes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The $95 million question

Will a Commonwealth Court judge allow expanded drilling in state forests and state parks for the sole purpose of balancing this years’ state budget?
That’s the question that the judge must answer as soon as Governor Corbett signs the fiscal code bill that directs the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to raise that amount of money by leasing more public land for gas drilling.
During a hearing on a request by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation to stop further leasing, the judge heard that no one in DCNR has recommended expanded drilling, and former DCNR Secretary John Quigley and other former staffers regretted allowing shale drilling in the forests in the first place.
The judge’s ruling will not have any impact on the state budget. The budget is “balanced” with hundreds of millions of dollars that no one believes will be available. With or without the $95 million from gas drilling, the budget passed by Republican legislators will not see the state through the entire fiscal year. Legislators could have raise substantial revenue by finally enacting a tax on natural gas extraction, but chose to sell off the forest instead.
The fate of our state forests and parks that lie over the Marcellus shale deposit rests in the judge’s hands. Will the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment prevail or will the short term desire to squeeze cash out of our forests and parks rob our children of a priceless environmental legacy?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Compounding error

Hindsight is the only perfect vision available to mortals. Even with a clear picture of the negative consequences of an action, it remains hard to admit error and change direction – damn human nature. But we are foolish when we repeat a serious mistake knowing it will only worsen a bad outcome.

And so it is with gas drilling in our public forest and, now, even in our state parks. Between 2008-10, the Rendell Administration leased more than 139,000 acres of state forest land to the gas drillers making a total of 385,000 acres available for drilling. The drillers will develop somewhere between 3,000 and 12,000 wells on those acres, clearing forestland for well pads, roads and pipelines, disrupting wildlife habitat and shutting off trails, streams, mountain vistas to forest visitors.

A Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ scientific study demonstrated that further leasing would permanently damage the forest, so in 2010 Governor Rendell signed an executive order that imposed a moratorium on further leasing of state forest land for gas drilling.

Now the Corbett Administration with the help of the Republican-controlled General Assembly is compounding the error by rescinding the Rendell executive order and once again expanding leasing, despite the fact that no one in DCNR has recommended that more leasing can be done without harming the forest.

Nevertheless, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has now told DCNR to raise $95 million this year by leasing more forestland and now even state park land for gas drilling. The language of the legislation that commits this error explicitly directs DCNR to ignore its own mission – that of conserving Pennsylvania’s public natural resources – to raise the required cash.

The Corbett Administration and the Republican in the General Assembly had an alternative to liquidating our natural assets – they could have passed a severance tax on gas drilling raising orders of magnitude more cash and sparing the forest.

Instead, they compounded an error made by people who really didn’t know what they were getting into. But now every member of the General Assembly and the Corbett Administration know full well the damage they will cause. They are reversing decades of prudent conservation of our natural heritage.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bringing down the barn

 “If you want to destroy a barn, cut an 18-inch hole in the roof. Then stand back.”

That’s a line from a hauntingly interesting book, “The World Without Us,” that came to mind as the federal government release the National Climate Assessment on Tuesday. The report, available online in an easy-to-navigate format, lays out the stark facts of what we’re facing here in Pennsylvania as the climate warms.
When it rains, it will pour. We’re already dealing with extreme downpours that locally overwhelm storm drains and push creeks out of their banks and into our houses. Summer heat will turn unbearable for weeks and air pollution will get worse. Farmers will be hard-pressed to adapt their crops and techniques to deal with the ever-more-fickle weather. Insects will bring new diseases to the region that used to be halted by cold winter temperatures.
Maybe we can handle all of that. But it will be hard, and we’ll be trying to do it under the increasing stresses to our infrastructure, food supply, health care system and environment. Our political system so far has not proven to be up to the task.
The report once again presents our options for both dealing with the inevitable damage the warming climate will bring and reducing the pollution that is driving climate change. We know what to do – reduce the use of fossil fuels, increase the use of clean, renewable energy, install green infrastructure, modernize and plan for coordinated emergency response.
In Pennsylvania we have had a halting start at dealing with climate change in the State Climate Action Plan. But the Corbett administration has done everything it can to bring any action to a firm stop.
For the first time in 800,000 years, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere hit 400 parts per million.
There’s a hole in the barn roof. Let’s fix it.