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PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The future of wildlife rests here

Yes, they’re at it again – gas and oil interests and their political allies are pushing another bad bill that sacrifices wildlife to the ever-growing industrialization of our wild places. This latest effort, House Bill 1576, represents an historic attack on Pennsylvania’s wildlife and their habitats.

PennFuture has fought against this bill, along with coalitions of sportsmen and women, anglers, hunters, and conservation and environmental groups, together representing well over 100,000 Pennsylvanians –- but it is going to be a heavy lift against the well-funded interests supporting it. If you haven’t yet, please take action and email or call your state representative today to find out where they stand, and urge a NO vote if the bill comes to a vote.

Looking out the window of PennFuture’s ninth-floor Wilkes-Barre office, we have a reminder right here of the importance of threatened and endangered species protection. In addition to views of the cityscape, flocks of pigeons, and a nearby wind farm, we have a peregrine falcon whose flights and loud caws are a regular sight to those in the know.
Downtown Wilkes-Barre peregrine falcon; photo courtesy of David Weaver

It’s been on the Pennsylvania endangered species list for good reason –- much like the bald eagle and others, it suffered catastrophic decline due to pesticides. After nearly 30 years with no nesting pairs, it’s now making a return with several dozen pairs in the state. We know that protecting species at the state level is the best way to prevent their decline and extinction. So why risk successful efforts such as these by politicizing and lengthening the process to list species, which this bill would do?

This bill is chiefly promoted by the fossil fuel industry, including the Marcellus Shale Coalition — and it undermines the ability of Pennsylvania's wildlife management agencies to protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats. It would also erode wildlife agencies' ability to designate wild trout streams -- impacting our environment and our state economy that depends on outdoors recreation.

As we noted in our message this week: Who do YOU trust to protect our natural world: scientists who make it their life's work, or extractive industries and the politicians doing their bidding? We need to tell Harrisburg and the fossil fuel industries that enough is enough.

Kate Gibbons is PennFuture's Northeastern Pennsylvania outreach coordinator and works in our Wilkes-Barre office.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fox guarding henhouse: New email emerges -- Are builders calling shots on building codes, safety?

With little scrutiny, Pennsylvania has outsourced the vital role of updating building safety codes to the very people who stand to be regulated – the building industry.  Specifically, the Pennsylvania Builders Association (PBA) – a powerful, well-connected industry group representing residential builders throughout the state—has almost complete control over whether Pennsylvania’s building codes will be kept current. This cannot continue.  

The Review and Advisory Council (RAC) is a little-known panel of Governor-appointees that decides whether to update building codes. Changes to the building code update process, signed into law as Gov. Corbett's first piece of legislation after taking office, require a supermajority vote of the RAC to update codes -- allowing for six RAC members to stand in the way of updated building codes. Currently, PBA holds, or has influence over, at least six members of the RAC.

A former president of the PBA has always sat on the RAC, and was (until last month), the Chair.  

Even more shockingly, through a Right-To-Know Law request, PennFuture discovered that long-time Pennsylvania Builders Association attorney Loudon “Hap” Campbell provided “legislative drafting” advice to RAC Chairman Frank Thompson and a RAC subcommittee. The advice apparently pertained to the RAC’s official comments on pending code adoption legislation.  

Why is the chairman of the RAC receiving legal advice pertaining to the RAC’s official comments on legislation from an attorney and lobbyist who has represented the PBA in cases spanning twenty five years, who is listed on PBA’s website as “PBA’s legal counsel,” and is listed on as a PBA lobbyist as recently as 2012?  

Stephen Black, another former president of the PBA, has been appointed by Gov. Cobett to replace Mr. Thompson. What will stop this too-cozy practice of insider influence by the PBA?   

Last summer, several bills were introduced to fix the broken codes process and remedy the undue influence of the PBA over the RAC’s decisions. However, the PBA was successful in amending the legislation to retain the existing system that makes building code adoption impossible without the PBA’s blessing.

The RAC should be comprised of a broad range of stakeholders and building code experts. Builders should have a say in the process, but Pennsylvania cannot continue to abdicate its regulatory authority to an industry group to the detriment of the safety and welfare of Pennsylvania's citizens. Only bringing to light PBA's undue influence, and legislative change to make the code adoption process more effective, will ensure that Pennsylvanians have the benefit of a thoughtful and balanced review of building codes.  

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's Director of Outreach and is based in our Philadelphia office.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Toxic overload

As Allegheny County air quality monitors edged into the red, unhealthy zone on Tuesday, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) and members of a multi-group collaborative (including PennFuture) prepared for a press teleconference about air pollution. The teleconference was aimed at stopping Shenango's Neville Island Coke Works from continuing to dump toxic chemicals into the air. The facility is one of the region's biggest polluters and, thus far, efforts to hold the plant responsible for its illegal emissions have failed to protect the many residents who live in Ben Avon, Avalon, Bellevue, Emsworth and beyond.

Coke oven emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes coke oven emissions as "among the most toxic of all air pollutants." The plants dump known carcinogens into the air along with unhealthy particle pollution that can lead to asthma and other severe health problems.

Enough is enough. 

Shenango Coke Works violated air quality regulations on 330 of the last 432 days. On February 6, GASP issued Shenango a 60-day notice of intent to sue under the Clean Air Act.

The notice, along with the teleconference and press release issued today, make it clear that citizens and environmental organizations won't sit back while pollution prevention laws are broken and the air we breathe makes Allegheny County residents sick.

Valessa Souter-Kline is western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for PennFuture, based in Pittsburgh.

Take Action: Corbett wants more gas development of public lands, tell your legislators to make moratorium law

We need your help. 

Last week, Governor Tom Corbett announced that he intends to undo a three-year-old moratorium on further gas leasing in state parks and state forests to fill a General Fund budget gap.

The lands are put into the public trust and we cannot simply sell their rights to the highest bidder for quick cash. 

Please tell your legislators to stand up for Pennsylvania’s natural heritage by co-sponsoring HB 950 or SB 540 — bills that would prohibit further exploitation of our public lands and make the current moratorium binding law as it applies to state forest lands. Click the Take Action button to tell Harrisburg not to balance the budget on the backs of our public lands.

The Corbett administration says the new drilling under public lands will be "non-impact" drilling — because no new well pads will be constructed.

But "non-impact drilling" is a fallacy — even horizontal drilling without more well pads creates more air pollution, more truck traffic, more water withdrawals, and more toxic waste water.

And drilling just outside park or forest boundaries creates real risks for these public lands should spills or other accidents occur.

HB 950 and SB 540 would make the moratorium law, prohibiting any further leasing and potential harm to public lands.

Both bills need more cosponsors — and we need to build the pressure to get these bills called up for a vote.

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's director of outreach and is based in our Philadelphia office.

An interview with John Norbeck, PennFuture's new vice president and chief operating officer

John Norbeck was announced as PennFuture’s new vice president and chief operating officer on January 6. Norbeck served as Pennsylvania state parks director from 2006 to 2012, and before that served for 29 years in the Maryland state park system. Under Norbeck’s tenure at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Pennsylvania state park system received a national gold medal as the best-managed park system in the United States.

PennFuture policy director Steve Stroman recently sat down with John for an interview, which we are delighted to share with you today.

Q: John—It has been great having you on board at PennFuture!  What are your impressions so far of the organization?

A: The staff at PennFuture are some of the brightest, most dedicated people I have had the pleasure of working with. Contrary to what some may think, there are no ‘pat’ answers. We strongly deliberate each issue to ensure we are doing what is right for the environment, community and economy. It simply works.

Q: Most of your career has been spent in state government, managing state parks in Pennsylvania and Maryland.  How are you enjoying working in the advocacy world for a non-profit?

A: It is challenging and liberating at the same time. PennFuture is on the cutting edge of issues, so the path is not as clear is it might be in other sectors of work. I enjoy the opportunity to develop new ideas and approaches that make a difference. The liberating part is that as part of the team, we formulate positions, messages and policies and carry them out swiftly. To remain relevant, your work needs to be fast paced and on target. That is PennFuture.

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?  What were some of the formative experiences of your younger days, especially pertaining to the environment and the outdoors?

A: I grew up in a rural/agricultural section of Maryland. As kids, my brothers, cousins, friends and I spent a vast majority of our time out in the woods and fields doing what kids do, and that is where I started to develop a love for the natural world that I carry today. I went to school at Roanoke College in Virginia. There, I studied biology and continued my interests in outdoor, nature-based recreation. I spent most of my free time hiking, camping, spelunking and paddling.

During my trips home from college, I noticed that the place I had once called home was being swallowed by sprawl. That experience helped me develop a better understanding of what is really important in the world we live in. We can’t stagnate but, at the same, time our development should not forever change the sense of place.

Q: For six years, you managed Pennsylvania’s state park system that includes 120 state parks, environmental education centers, and conservation areas. What were some of the most rewarding aspects of that job?

A: First and foremost, working with the men and women in the Bureau of State Parks and DCNR was really rewarding. The professional staff there is absolutely awesome. I also enjoyed the fact that we provided top-notch public service to the citizens and visitors to Pennsylvania. Even with declining budgets, we were able to focus our work on what was important. We were honored for that work, and received the national Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Management.

There were a number of programs we developed that I am proud of but two stand out. We were able to advance an already good environmental education program to a level of excellence. Last, but certainly not least, we started a Green Parks program that was well on its way to reducing our carbon footprint by 20 percent over five years.

Q: You mentioned that under your leadership, the Bureau of State Parks unveiled a Green Parks program to measure and reduce each park’s carbon footprint, conserve water, reduce pollution, use green energy and green buildings, etc. Can you tell us more about that initiative?

A.: State Parks are like small cities in many ways. We gave a number of educational programs talking about reducing the carbon footprint and being efficient, but we were not really walking the walk. So, we set the goal as noted before, to reduce our carbon footprint by 20 percent in five years, and to conserve our natural resources where we could.

We looked at every aspect of our work, from park design to the way we (and visitors) used the parks, to how we heated and cooled buildings. The main goal was to conserve natural resources and reduce our footprint, but we also wanted to show you could do it and save money at the same time. We performed energy audits to point us in the right direction. We reduced our energy use through the use of alternative energy including geothermal, solar, and wind. By taking a critical look at our maintenance program, we reduced how much area we mowed, switched to using propane mowers instead of gas or diesel, installed soft start motors in the sewage treatment plants. The list goes on. The first park enrolled in the program was Yellow Creek; they exceeded the 20 percent goal in a short three years. You can be green, clean and efficient -- you just need to want to do it.

Q: You mentioned that in 2009, Pennsylvania’s state park system under your direction was awarded the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association. Please tell me more about this award. What were some of the factors that impressed the judges?

A: It is an award that is given out every two years at most, to a state park system that demonstrates excellence in park management. It is a peer group that judges the applicants. I believe what made Pennsylvania stand out in the program is that we were being progressive in our approach to managing parks while paying homage to our core state park values. Our approach was to look at the parks as being a part of the local community and developing ties that both advanced our mission and that of the communities. The Green Parks program was certainly a program that was well received and, in part, emulated by a number of our park systems. Our approach to strongly supporting environmental education even during declining budgets was seen as forward thinking and acting. We were preparing for the future. Another large factor was our collaborative work with other government and non-governmental organizations. A simple proposition that is rarely acted upon. DCNR, Bureau of State Parks did. We worked to leverage each other’s resources to the collective benefit of the region.

Q: What are some of your favorite state parks in Pennsylvania? What are some of the hidden gems of the park system that may be unfamiliar to some of our readers, but definitely worth a visit?

A: Cook Forest State Park and the Cathedral Forest is probably my most favorite place. Not a hidden gem, but one that needs to be conserved and preserved at all cost. World’s End State Park is another favorite place. Nestled in the Loyalsock State Forest, it is a great place to hike. Ohiopyle for its over the top, nature-based recreation. Gifford Pinchot because it is MY local park. Pine Grove Forest, my other local park. Now that I think about the question more, they are all my favorite parks and all have hidden gems. I have visited every Pennsylvania state park and they all have great value worth experiencing.

Q: What do you see as some of the top environmental and conservation challenges now facing Pennsylvania?

A: Without a doubt, the natural gas boom in Pennsylvania is the top environmental and conservation challenge, and opportunity, of the century. We have a chance to manage this resource boom differently, and more effectively, than we did for the timber and coal boom. There is a gold rush mentality surrounding the issue that is pitting economy against environment, brother against brother. The rush to get every last molecule of gas out of the ground as quickly as possible is leading to environmental degradation that may be far worse than what we experienced in the previous booms. In addition, water, our most precious resource, is being compromised at a level that is hard to fathom. There is a better way.

Q: What are some of your goals and priorities in your new position at PennFuture?

A: As chief operating officer, I have several major objectives. As a quick highlight, I will be co-leading a strategic planning process for the organization with our President/CEO Cindy Dunn, which will bring a stronger focus to our work and set the stage for us in the coming years. The work at PennFuture is detailed and fast moving; to meet that head-on, we will be updating our internal and external technology functions. In addition, we will be launching a new public lands campaign designed to enhance the protection and conservation of public lands in the Commonwealth.  

Q: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?

A: I enjoy outdoor, nature-based recreation such as hiking and paddling. Recently, I have combined my long-term love of woodworking and paddling into a new hobby for me, wooden canoe restoration. For years, I have dabbled in antique vehicle restoration (Willys and Jeeps), and have also gotten into rock crawling using one of my builds. Lastly, I am starting to build my own electric vehicle. Again, I will combine two interests, Jeeps and conservation into one hobby, building an electric Jeep.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

ALCOSAN’s Wet Weather Plan is looking gray; does that leave room for green?

In 2012, PennFuture submitted comments encouraging the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) to look for ways to green their Wet Weather Plan. The Plan is required by law, to outline a strategy to keep raw sewage out of our waterways.* The end goal is important. Our rivers provide our drinking water as well as places to fish, swim, boat and unwind. If our rivers aren't clean and healthy, we in Allegheny County lose out.

Stormwater Bumpout
Image credit:
Philadelphia Water Department
Reaching the Goal 
How we reach the end goal has been the subject of a very public conversation over the past year. While ALCOSAN proposed gray infrastructure (pipes and tanks) to store more water, many groups, including PennFuture, are asking for green. Green infrastructure means capturing rain where it lands, before it enters the pipe system and, ideally, allowing it to soak into the ground or be taken up by plant roots. Unlike gray infrastructure, green doesn't just manage stormwater. Green infrastructure provides secondary benefits including limiting surface water erosion; creating habitat and passive recreational areas; shading urban spaces and reducing cooling costs (hard to appreciate in February but important nonetheless); offsetting climate change; cleaning our polluted air; and increasing property values.

If green is so great, why isn't it in the Wet Weather Plan?  
Good question. The features that make green infrastructure great, including that it is on the surface, beautifying our neighborhoods while cleaning our water, are also what make it challenging to plan for. Green infrastructure must be integrated into 83 municipalities. Over the past year, understanding of the value of green infrastructure has increased dramatically throughout the county and the demand is now loud and clear, with leaders including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald leading the way.

Let’s go green now
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently told ALCOSAN that the Wet Weather Plan won’t meet required water quality standards. With a new administration in Pittsburgh, the news may be a step forward rather than a setback. By asking ALCOSAN to revisit the plan, the EPA has left the door open for green infrastructure. Let’s take this opportunity to invest in clean water AND thriving communities by incorporating green infrastructure along with the gray.

*How does raw sewage wind up in the water, you ask? 
As we build our homes, schools, offices roads and parking lots, we cover up soil and replace it with hard, impermeable surfaces. When it rains (or snows) all the water that hits those hard surfaces is sent straight into pipes instead of soaking into the ground. Once the pipes fill up, they are designed to overflow (so they don’t back up into your basement), and overflows dump not only rain and snow melt into our rivers but the sewage that flows in there, too. Gross, I know!

Valessa Souter-Kline is PennFuture's Western Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator and is based in our Pittsburgh office. 

Say it ain't so: Corbett's budget calls for more gas leasing of public lands

Governor Tom Corbett delivered his annual budget address this week, along with his proposed FY 2014-15 budget.

The headline: The governor plans to lift a three-year-old moratorium on the further leasing of public lands for gas development to fill a budget gap. The budget factors in $75 million in drilling revenue to be accrued via further leasing of state park and forest lands for gas development.

The Corbett administration refers to the new drilling under public lands as "non-impact" drilling -- because no new well pads will be constructed, according to budget secretary Charles Zogby. It is unclear whether approved, but not yet built, well pads will fall under the moratorium. 

Of course, "non-impact drilling" is a fallacy -- even horizontal drilling without more surface disturbances creates more air pollution, more truck traffic, more water withdrawals, and more toxic waste water. And drilling just outside park or forest boundaries creates real risks for these public lands should spills or other accidents occur. 

Bottom line: Gov. Corbett is attempting to balance the state budget on the backs of our state parks and forest lands when he should be protecting these special places for this and future generations. 

Pennsylvania holds and manages its public lands in trust for all citizens of the Commonwealth, including generations yet to come. We have a responsibility to preserve and protect them, not sell them out for quick cash. 

Also of concern: The diversion of $117.5 million from the state's Oil and Gas Lease Fund (OGLF) as operational budget money for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The OGLF was originally designated for conservation, recreation and flood control programs in state parks and forests. 

Governor Corbett is not the first governor to raid the Oil and Gas Lease Fund -- but the practice is growing more alarming as our conservation and natural resource agencies are increasingly reliant on the rapid exploitation of the very resources they should be conserving. 

Governor's Enhance Penn's Woods initiative: Gov. Corbett announced the Enhance Penn's Woods initiative as part of his 2014-2015 budget proposal, allocating $45 million in new funding for parks and infrastructure. 

While moving to enhance public lands is always good news, the question remains as to when a new, and permanent, revenue stream will be put in place to protect Pennsylvania's crown jewels, our public lands. 

Our state parks are not only recreational and cultural assets, they are also an economic driver. For every dollar spent in state parks, thirteen dollars is returned to the economy of Pennsylvania. 
Despite this value, there has been a chronic under-investment in state park and forest resources -- because of this patchwork funding and lack of a consistent revenue stream. 

Corbett proposes DEP staff cut, increase in funding: The governor proposed a $10 million increase in general fund support for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), from $129.8 million to $139.9 million. (For context, the DEP general fund budget was $245.6 million in 2002-2003.)**

Yet, he also proposed slashing 66 jobs at DEP — the agency tasked with policing the gas industry and protecting our air, land, and water. DEP has seen a 17 percent decrease in staffing over the past decade. 

It's hard to fathom how Pennsylvania is supposed to regulate an expanding industry with decreasing manpower. 

** Correction: In our original publication, we stated that that Governor Corbett proposed to increase the DEP’s 2014-15 funding to $136.7 million, while noting that the DEP’s total budget in 2002-2003 was more than $700 million. While true, this statement was confusing because $136.7 million is not the DEP’s proposed total 2014-2015 budget – only the share of the budget that would come from the general fund. The DEP’s total budget for 2014-2015 (including special fund monies and federal appropriations, as well as general fund monies) is proposed to be $689.3 million. By contrast, the DEP’s 2002-2003 budget was $728.3 million, or about $922 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's Director of Outreach and is based in our Philadelphia office.