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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Black & Gold City is still Going Green

This past Saturday, we had 12 volunteers who helped distribute 137 free energy-saving toolkits to residents in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The contents of the bags include CFL light bulbs, a smart power strip, LED night lights, window and door caulk, and various pamphlets with energy saving tips.

Each bag helps to avoid over 3,817 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere and saves each household over $100 in electricity costs per year. From the collective effort of our volunteers, we helped to avoid over half a million pounds of CO2 from being released, which is equivalent to taking 50 cars off the road or planting 6,082 trees. Those are pretty astounding numbers for just a few hours of volunteer work!

The Black and Gold City Goes Green campaign engages the residents of Pittsburgh in simple actions they can take at home in order to reduce their energy demand and, therefore, their carbon footprint since most electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants. The main focus is on promoting energy efficient products and behaviors, as well as educating individuals about using renewable energy to power their homes. This project was created by PennFuture in 2009 as the community aspect of the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative (PCI). The PCI raises awareness and engages Pittsburgh’s residents, businesses, government and institutions of higher learning in taking concrete actions that reduce heat-trapping gas and air pollution and its impact on our local economy and human health.

Neighborhood blitzes provide direct community involvement to help reduce Pittsburgh’s greenhouse gases—a major contributor to climate change— and improve the region’s air quality. According to an analysis by the Clean Air Task Force using 2010-2012 data, out of 338 urban areas surveyed, Pittsburgh’s air quality is in the dirtiest 10 percent for average annual particle pollution. This is a major cause of concern because poor air quality poses serious risks for public health, including heart and lung disease, cancer, asthma and birth defects, to name a few. (For more information related to the region’s air quality and what is being done about it, check out the Breathe Project.)

Since the neighborhood blitz was adopted as a proactive outreach model in 2010, the Black and Gold City Goes Green campaign has organized 24 blitzes throughout 16 different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that have reached a total of 2,139 households.

Nicole Catino is PennFutute's 2014 Student Conservation Association Green Cities Sustainability Fellow and is based in Pittsburgh.

State audit criticizes DEP's handling of drilling industry

Yesterday, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released his report on the Special Performance Audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The audit made clear that DEP is falling well short in its regulatory oversight of the shale gas industry. 

The Auditor General indicated that while DEP disagreed with all of its findings, the Department was willing to accept a majority of its recommendations. He also indicated that while there have been improvements since the audit began in 2013, the “telltale sign” of the audit's success would be the implementation of its 29 recommendations. 

PennFuture's Vice President, John Norbeck, released this statement on the audit: 

While we commend the employees at DEP for their ongoing efforts to address the environmental impacts of Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom, it's clear that the Department is not keeping up with its statutory role. The Auditor General noted in his report eight key findings that outlined, among other concerns, the Department's failure to issue administrative orders when violations occurred, effectively allowing the industry to police itself. Further, the report noted that the Department had no clear inspection schedule for gas wells, and evidenced a startling lack of transparency and accountability. When our citizens have greater access to information about kennel inspections and restaurant inspections than they do natural gas well inspections, we have a problem.” 
“DEP is severely underfunded and understaffed at a time when the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania is experiencing substantial growth. The Corbett administration should be increasing agency staffing, not decreasing it, and ensuring that DEP employees have the necessary tools to do their jobs. Anything less is a failure of leadership. We are again issuing the call for a drilling tax that will allow for rigorous monitoring of the natural gas industry as it makes drillers more accountable for the inevitable environmental damage that will result from this industrial activity.”  
This report could not be clearer: DEP needs additional funding, more cops on the beat, and a robust monitoring system. While other gas drilling states are pursuing world-class inspection standards, Pennsylvania is falling short. We can ill afford to let another extractive industry run roughshod over the Commonwealth. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, mistakes for which we are still paying dearly.”
For more coverage of the audit: Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, StateImpact, Associated Press, Philadelphia City Paper.  

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's Director of Outreach and is based in Philadelphia. He tweets at @RexBainbridge.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Corbett's former health secretary says state not addressing fracking health concerns

Last week, we brought you the news that Pennsylvania Department of Health employees were sent a list of fracking-related buzzwords as part of official guidance for how to handle complaints to the department -- and told not to personally return calls from people who used words on the list.

This weekend, Governor Corbett's former top health department official said the state wasn't doing nearly enough to study the health impacts of tracking. 

“The lack of any action speaks volumes," said Dr. Eli Avila. “Don't BS the public. Their health comes first."

Corbett's current health secretary, Michael Wolf, said he hasn't spoken directly to the governor about possible health impacts from the drilling boom, only to the governor's staff. 

PennFuture, along with the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, PennEnvironment and Clean Water Action, put out a joint statement yesterday demanding an investigation:
"We are calling for a full independent and transparent investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Health's response to drilling complaints. The legitimate questions of Pennsylvania citizens concerning their health or that of family members as a result of natural gas drilling activity cannot be discounted or dismissed outright. The fact that the department originally denied the existence of a “buzzwords” list, and the fact that Governor Corbett has refused to weigh in with a forceful response, leaves us no choice but to call for a full investigation. We are also asking the department to make available to the public all past and future health complaints, and to commit to addressing all future complaints in a timely manner." 
"This entire episode begs the question: Is the Corbett administration more concerned with protecting the natural gas industry than it is the health and welfare of Pennsylvania families and future generations? There should not be one set of rules for the gas industry and another set for everyone else. If there is any question that the actions of drillers are causing harm to our air, water and land as well as the health of our citizens, the governor and state agencies must address those concerns immediately. Governor Corbett needs to show leadership on this issue of great public concern, not delay and deny."
Stay tuned. This is a story we'll be following closely.  

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's Director of Outreach and is based in Philadelphia. He tweets at @RexBainbridge.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Conservation travels: Pinchot's Grey Towers

Gifford Pinchot -- the first Chief of the United States Forest Service and a former Pennsylvania Governor -- is a forefather of the conservation movement. During some time off last week, I visited Pinchot's summer estate, Grey Towers (now a National Historic site), which has been operated by the U.S. Forest Service in Milford, Pike County since it was gifted to the nation and famously dedicated by President John F. Kennedy in September 1963.
"Every sportsman, every vacationist, every nature lover is or should be an earnest protector of the forests. Their help will count more than they know, and more than anyone can tell." 
In 1923. Pinchot wrote those words in a U.S. Forest Service pamphlet entitled "Talks on Forestry." When I visited Grey Towers this summer, it reminded me how prescient his words were and how his conservation vision rings true today.

The Pinchot family were wealthy lumberers in the late 19th century, and this lifestyle and devastation of the forests heavily influenced the young Pinchot's conservation philosophy and determination to do it differently. His long role in developing professional forestry in the U.S. and advocacy on behalf of conservation, working people, and farmers are detailed further on the Grey Towers site

Here are just a few of my observations and favorite quotes from a day at Grey Towers:
  • Two European copper beech trees, his favorite trees, were planted in 1920 and stand today. Pinchot was said to note that he wished he could "return in 100 years" just to see these two trees. The trees guard the path to an ornamental pool and stone playhouse built for his young son, Gifford Bryce, where they built him a blacksmith forge so that he could learn a discipline and skill.
  • Pinchot, elected Governor as a progressive Republican, first worked closely with President Theodore Roosevelt as Chief Forester as, together, they made conservation a national priority for the first time. Later, Pinchot's work camps became a model for the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps organized by the Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt; he advised this President on conservation issues into his retirement.
  • Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, Gifford's wife, was a strong voice in the family and one of the early women to campaign. She was also an avid suffragist and child labor activist. She designed the gardens and chose many of the ornamental and landscape plantings which are still there today.
  • Lastly, a quote of Pinchot's that reflects what we work toward at PennFuture:  "Encourage others to do things; you may accomplish many things through others that you can’t get done on your single initiative."

Kate Gibbons is PennFuture's northeastern Pennsylvania outreach coordinator and is based in Wilkes-Barre.

PA Department of Health employees silenced on drilling complaints?

A report issued by StateImpact last week revealed that Pennsylvania Department of Health employees were sent a list of fracking-related buzzwords as part of official guidance for how to handle complaints to the department -- and were told not to personally return calls from people who used words on the list. Words and phrases singled out for special treatment included: drilling, fracking, Marcellus Shale, skin rash, and cancer cluster:
One veteran employee says she was instructed not to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development.

“We were absolutely not allowed to talk to them,” said Tammi Stuck, who worked as a community health nurse in Fayette County for nearly 36 years.

Another retired employee, Marshall P. Deasy III, confirmed that.

Deasy, a former program specialist with the Bureau of Epidemiology, said the department also began requiring field staff to get permission to attend any meetings outside the department. This happened, he said, after an agency consultant made comments about drilling at a community meeting.

In the more than 20 years he worked for the department, Deasy said, “community health wasn’t told to be silent on any other topic that I can think of.”
The Corbett administration initially denied that such a list existed:
The Health Department initially denied the existence of both the drilling “buzzwords” list and the employee permission form. A spokeswoman called the two retired employees’ claims “erroneous.”
The department later acknowledged the existence of the documents, but said these policies were meant to guide–not silence–employees in responding to complaints. 
Some, including Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News, are calling for an investigation by lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Whatever happened here, it's clear that the we haven't heard the last on this. We need to know why the natural gas industry was seemingly singled out for special treatment -- by a department tasked with protecting public health. 

Stay tuned. 

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's director of outreach and is based in Philadelphia. He tweets at @RexBainbridge.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Irresponsible budget jeopardizes state parks

At the time of publication, Governor Tom Corbett has yet to decide whether he will sign the $29.1 billion budget passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. If you care about our state's land, air, and water,  there are a host of reasons why this budget is short-sighted and harmful.

Among the most serious concerns: It balances the budget on the back of public lands by expanding gas leasing of state forests, and contains the first-ever Marcellus gas leasing of state parks. 

The budget poses substantial risks to some of the state’s best economic and recreational assets: Our state parks and forests. It further enriches the gas industry, rather than asking it to pay its fair share in the form of a drilling tax -- a measure that exists in every other major gas-producing state.

In May, Governor Corbett lifted a moratorium on the leasing of public lands for natural gas drilling and proposed generating $75 million in new lease revenue from fracking our parks and forests. The state legislature took the Governor’s bad idea and made it worse – upping the ante to $95 million in its own budget.

Just as concerning, the choice to lease state parks for gas drilling could help unleash a significant amount of unconventional gas development on the doorstep of our State Parks above and beyond what is proposed by the Corbett administration and the General Assembly. 

And here's why: Because the Commonwealth does not control 80 percent of the mineral rights under state parks, many of our parks have been wide open to unconventional gas drilling. So why, then, have we not seen gas development in our state parks or on their doorstep as a means to access the gas under the parks? Because gas companies understand the affinity that Pennsylvanians have for our state parks and the likely public relations debacle that would ensue if development was pursued.

But if the Commonwealth reverses long-standing policy, and brings development to the doorstep of state parks, what will these companies and other subsurface rights owner do?

It is logical to assume that many of these companies, with the Commonwealth leading the way, will argue that what is good for the goose is good for the gander and proceed to develop their gas rights under state parks.

Some of our most iconic parks such as Ohiopyle and Ricketts Glen lie above the Marcellus shale. Do Pennsylvania families want to forever alter some of our most beloved parks? Will we want to picnic within the rumble of trucks and heavy equipment? Do we want to go hiking in sight of drilling rigs and compressor stations?

Andrew Sharp is PennFuture's Director of Outreach and is based in Philadelphia. He tweets @RexBainbridge.

Speak up: ACHD is in process of updating open burning rules

Particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)  are just a few of the unhealthy pollutants found in the smoke drifting off of our campfires and out of our wood-stoves. That list goes on for three pages and, to a camper and marshmallow roaster like me, is wholly discouraging. 

No one wants to see that the warm, fuzzy scene evoked by cozy gatherings around a fire pit may not paint the whole picture. The good news: Taking a minute to understand the risks won't take away your favorite fall pastime altogether. 

While campfires always release pollution, there are ways to make them better -- and make them better we must. Wood burning, indoors and out, is on the rise and the health impacts are significant. According to the American Lung Association: "Besides particle pollution, wood burning also produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and even toxic air pollution. Studies have found that wood smoke leads to coughing and shortness of breath, decreases in lung function, and aggravated asthma and may even cause cancer." 

In many parts of Pennsylvania, where our air routinely receives a failing grade from the American Lung Association and our kids suffer from higher-than-average rates of asthma, burning wood (or, even worse, illegally burning leaves, debris and trash) exacerbates the problem. 

Allegheny County currently bans wood burning only on bad air days. The problem with enforcement is, do you know what today's air quality level is? It matters what you burn, how you burn it -- and when. 

While we prepare to testify at a hearing in support of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed clean power rule (join us!) and fight to bring big air polluters into compliance with air quality regulations, let's not lose sight of the air closest to home -- in our back yards -- and make sure we aren't part of the problem.

In Allegheny County, the Health Department is in the process of updating its open burning regulations. Now is your chance to speak up in favor of clean air. You can submit public comments through Monday July 7. As they are currently written, the regulations allow for only clean, dry wood to be burned, which will help cut down on smoke and particulate matter but will not eliminate the problem altogether. 

PennFuture recommends that in addition to working to reduce pollution from open burning in Allegheny County, more education needs to take place to connect the dots between the air we breathe and our health. Our cities, in particular, struggle to keep particle pollution within a safe range, especially on hot summer days. If you’re considering building a fire outdoors, check the air quality index first to make sure you’re not making a bad day even worse.

Valessa Souter-Kline is PennFuture's western Pennsylvania outreach coordinator and is based in Pittsburgh. She tweets @ValessaSK.