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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Anti-fracking report issued by Penn Environment, not PennFuture

An industry online publication, the Marcellus Drilling News, erroneously posted that PennFuture issued an anti-fracking report this week. The anti-fracking report was issued by PennEnvironment and not PennFuture. PennFuture contacted the publication and the post has been corrected:

Home builders: Slow, dysfunctional building code process is A-OK

On Tuesday, the Senate Labor and Industry Committee held a hearing on Sen. Charles McIlhinney's bill that attempts to address the dysfunction in the state's building code adoption process.

The McIlhinney bill would return Pennsylvania to a process whereby codes are automatically adopted unless two-thirds of the members of the Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council (RAC) vote to reject them. Equally critical, the bill would force the RAC to re-review its decision to reject all of the 2012 International Construction Code (ICC) updates.

At the hearing, there was unanimous consensus that Pennsylvania's building code adoption process needs to be fixed. What the appropriate fix is, well, that was the source of great debate -- and will determine whether Pennsylvania has safe, well-constructed, energy efficient buildings or if the state's building codes lag behind and remain out of date.

According to RAC Chairman Frank Thompson and the Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA) -- the latter an influential interest group of home builders -- the answer is simple. Fix an already slow, dysfunctional, process by making it glacially slow.

After choosing not to adopt any of the hundreds of common-sense code updates in 2012, their solution is to put off making any new code decisions until 2016 -- by changing the code adoption cycle from three to six years. Senator McIlhinney, a Bucks County Republican, described this solution as "ridiculous." [Hint: He's right.]

McIlhinney's proposed fix: Streamline the process by restoring Pennsylvania to a system where updated codes are automatically adopted unless a two-thirds majority of the RAC votes them out. People in the know call this the "opt-out" process. This would allow for hundreds of common-sense (often, simply semantic) code changes to take effect, while allowing for substantive analysis on proposed changes that merit debate.

Equally important, it would mandate that the RAC do its job and re-examine the 2012 code changes. In 2012, the RAC failed to perform the required analysis for code changes and, inconsistent with the law, arbitrarily voted not to adopt any of the 2012 codes. Hundreds of changes to the building codes recommended by the ICC were summarily rejected. These rejected changes include building and safety improvements in addition to updated energy efficiency standards.

Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA) representative Joe Mingioni, who was also on the RAC in 2012 when it rejected the updates, admitted as much at Tuesday's hearing. He said that the decision not to adopt any new codes in 2012 was a "policy statement" rather than a decision against each code update on its merit.

The former RAC member's moment of candor -- admitting that the group failed to follow the analysis requirements of the law and instead rejected each and every code update in a policy statement  -- begs a couple key questions: What would prevent the RAC from making another policy statement in 2016 and again dismissing all code changes? Why is it reasonable to assume that 19 political appointees with no staff could possibly analyze hundreds of code changes and reach a two-thirds majority on each?  Why has Pennsylvania decided to give so much regulatory authority to an unelected, industry-dominated advisory committee, rather than keeping the final say with the Department of Labor and Industry?

One suspects that the RAC as currently constituted will never meet a set of code changes it likes -- and codes in Pennsylvania could remain anchored in 2009 since it will always be easier for the RAC to take no action than to reach a two-thirds consensus. (This theory was borne out in 2012.)

PBA's Mingioni also complained that "special interests" (read: manufacturers of energy efficiency products) were driving the attempt to fix the RAC process. We'll let that sink in for a moment...a powerful and well-connected special interest group standing in the way of progress is complaining that special interests are trying to change the process. Pot, meet kettle. If any special interest has a strangle-hold on the process, it's the home builders and their allies.

By the way, the number of energy efficiency representatives on the nineteen-member RAC? Zero.

If you support safe and energy efficient buildings in Pennsylvania, visit and take action

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

VICTORY: Philly as America's Next Great City

This post is one in a month-long series speaking to 15 of PennFuture's significant victories. It was 15 years ago this September that we began our work to protect the environment and champion a clean energy economy.

For the past eight years, nearly 130 organizations – representing civic associations, labor unions, businesses, public health advocates, environmental nonprofits, the faith community, and social service groups – have worked together through PennFuture's Next Great City coalition to create a positive, sustainable future for Philadelphia.

When we came together in the Fall of 2005, Philadelphia had just been named America’s Next Great City by National Geographic Magazine. With support from the William Penn Foundation, our coalition set out to find what makes a city great, and then develop an agenda with the next mayoral election on the horizon.

First, we found areas on which we could all agree. A great city should be clean. It should have effective city services. It should be a healthy, safe place where every neighborhood is a good place to live and work.

Through months of  research, coalition building, and discussion with hundreds of residents, businesses, and community leaders across the city, Next Great City was able to agree on 10 actions to recommend to the next mayor.

Next Great City released its ten point agenda in January 2006 and, a month later, we held a mayoral forum which all the Democratic mayoral candidates attended. Then-candidate Michael Nutter fully embraced the Next Great City agenda and pledged to make Philly the greenest city in America. Many point to that forum as the turning point in his nascent campaign.

With the strong leadership of Mayor Nutter and the Mayor's Office of Sustainability, nine out of ten of Next Great City's recommendations were largely met, from creating public waterfronts and watershed access, to increasing the use of clean energy, to implementing an innovative green storm water management system.

In 2011, Next Great City released a 5-point agenda for City Council. Since then, Philadelphia has burnished its reputation as a city at the vanguard of urban sustainability. Philly was the sixth city in the U.S. to enact energy benchmarking legislation, passed a bike-friendly complete streets law, and has a recycling rate that has quadrupled. This fall, City Council will hold hearings on a bill that would create a land bank to put properties back to productive reuse.

PennFuture is proud to have played a leading role in Philadelphia's sustainability transformation through our work with the Next Great City coalition. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mayor Michael Nutter, the William Penn Foundation, and our Next Great City coalition partners. And yet, much work remains. We will continue to advocate for common-sense policies that enhance environmental quality, strengthen neighborhoods and increase our economic competitiveness -- in every corner of Pennsylvania.

VICTORY: PennFuture legal eagles prevail so the Pittsburgh bald eagles can fly home

This post is one in a month-long series speaking to 15 of PennFuture's significant victories. It was 15 years ago this September that we began our work to protect the environment and champion a clean energy economy.

The best kind of legal victory is the one that keeps on giving.  Take Hays Woods in Pittsburgh, for example.  Did you know that bald eagles nested there this summer?

Sounds incredible, but it's true.

These majestic creatures, with their seven-foot wingspan soaring mid-air, make every sighting breathtaking. Watching eagles fly is a thrilling experience that can stop you in your tracks. Their continued recovery in Pennsylvania, and throughout the nation, is one of our great wildlife conservation stories.

Photo of female bald eagle, Tom Moeller, Pittsburgh
    Soaring eagle 

Photo by Tom Moeller, Pittsburgh, PA

Hays Woods, a 600-plus acre wooded property in the Hays district of the City of Pittsburgh, sets high on a hilltop overlooking the Monongahela River.  It is the single largest undeveloped piece of property in the city. 

In 2003, area residents let PennFuture know that a proposed strip mine for the property would level its hills and fill its stream valleys to pave the way for a race track and casino. PennFuture led the way to oppose what amounted to mountain top mining in the City of Pittsburgh. We partnered with neighbors, grassroots organizations, activists, university students, and concerned decision makers to fight to protect the woodland and streams for local wildlife. The legal and education work that began in 2003 culminated in 2009 with a major victory for Hays Woods and Pittsburgh's environment.

The arrival of a nesting pair of bald eagles has brought renewed attention to Hays Woods, an area that many local residents would like to conserve permanently. Those thoughts would no longer be possible but for the efforts of PennFuture. We are proud to have played a role in keeping that long term goal alive. It is but one example of  the work that we do to protect and sustain the natural habitats of Pennsylvania's wildlife. 

Photo of bald eagle pair, Tom Moeller, Pittsburgh

A pair of nesting bald eagles in Pittsburgh's Hays Woods are now parents. 

Photo by Tom Moeller, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Monday, September 9, 2013

VICTORY: In addition to saving a stream, UMCO set important legal precedent

This post is one in a month-long series speaking to 15 of PennFuture's significant victories. It was 15 years ago this September that we began our work to protect the environment and champion a clean energy economy.

Once upon a time (actually around 2004), there was a mine owner named Bob Murray who operated a longwall mine in Washington County, Pennsylvania known as the High Quality Mine. It was a shallow mine as far as longwall mining was concerned - as shallow as 210 feet below the ground surface - and, like many underground mines in Washington County, it crossed under a number of springs, seeps and streams.

Bob Murray - also part owner of
the Crandall Canyon Mine, where
six miners died in August 2007.
By the time PennFuture was asked by local citizens to get involved in the matter, we found that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had been permitting the mine in a very unusual way. Instead of issuing a single permit that comprehensively looked at the impacts of the entire mine, DEP was segmenting the project into individual authorizations that only looked at the environmental impacts from the next longwall panel. The streams that flowed over the mine were fed by shallow, perched groundwater zones. This was significant because this shallow source water could be permanently redirected away from the stream by mine subsidence fractures.

When PennFuture entered the scene, Murray's company, UMCO Energy, Inc., had completely eliminated every spring and seep above the portion of the mine that had been completed, including eradication of the flow in an unnamed tributary to Maple Creek known as the 5E stream, and DEP was proposing to allow UMCO to continue mining under, and no doubt eliminating, the next tributary that would be encountered, the 6E stream. 

For more than two years, PennFuture pursued litigation on behalf of local citizens that were concerned about the permanent impacts of the mine on local streams. Through a series of actions filed with the Environmental Hearing Board and an appeal to Commonwealth Court, PennFuture not only prevented DEP from continuing to permit the mine and the subsequent destruction of the springs, seeps and streams in the Maple Creek watershed, it also established important legal precedent on how DEP permits longwall mines.

In particular, the UMCO proceedings established that DEP had to comprehensively consider the effects of all anticipated mining on area hydrology, and could not make decisions based on an artificially narrow and segmented approach. In its supersedeas decision, Judge Labuskes of the Board chided the agency for its slanted approach, saying that it would not surprise anyone that the hydrologic impacts of a mine would appear insignificant if you focused only on small, isolated portions of the mine rather than looking holistically at the full impact of the entire operation.

The case represented a significant decision for Maple Creek and its tributaries, and had a lasting impact on how DEP permits mines in Pennsylvania.

PennFuture will celebrate 15 years of environmental victories on September 25. Please consider joining us

Thursday, September 5, 2013

VICTORY: We're helping protect babies from toxic mercury

This post is one in a month-long series speaking to 15 of PennFuture's significant victories. It was 15 years ago this September that we began our work to protect the environment and champion a clean energy economy.

Mercury is a proven neurotoxin. It can damage the developing brains and nervous systems of babies (including those in utero), children, and adults. Some may foolishly deny the reality of climate change, but no one denies that mercury can poison us.

Pennsylvania's mercury emissions are very high. So, where does it all come from? Largely from the smokestacks of our coal-fired power plants.

Nearly a decade ago, in 2004, PennFuture decided to right this wrong. Facing an uphill battle, we nevertheless filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board to enact regulations on power plants. Through a long process that involved many of our supporters, we managed to get the state to issue the regulation.

Alas, that regulation was challenged by power plant owners, and the Commonwealth Court declared the mercury rule unconstitutional in 2009.
Fortunately, the federal government jumped in and proposed a federal standard to limit mercury from power plants across the nation.

PennFuture worked hard to generate public support for this standard. It became law in 2011, yet we still weren't able to let our guard down. Relying on an arcane provision of Congress called the Congressional Review Act, the polluters' friends on Capitol Hill attempted to overturn the mercury standard.

Again, PennFuture rallied the troops to plead that Senators Casey and Toomey vote to protect our kids instead of polluters. (Senator Casey voted to protect public health. Senator Toomey? No. Why not, Senator Toomey?) Fortunately, this tale has a happy ending. In June 2012, common sense prevailed and the mercury standard remains as federal law. Even so, we remain vigilant.

We at PennFuture have been thrilled to be a part of this public health victory. And we couldn't have done it with you, so thank YOU!

PennFuture will celebrate 15 years of environmental victories on September 25. Please consider joining us!