Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Measles in Western Pennsylvania

Two pre-school age children were treated at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh for measles over the weekend.
The children are from Westmoreland county and are recovering at home. Officials are tracking every person the children may have been exposed to.
The two children had not been immunized. Children who have had vaccines are not at risk for contracting measles.
The Allegheny County Health Department, Pennsylvania Department of Health and Children's Hospital held a press conference top let parents know they should have their children immunized.
According to health department officials, 15 percent of all children in Allegheny County have not received all of the recommended vaccines. Vaccines in Pennsylvania are free for those under 18.
Measles is an acute, highly communicable rash illness transmitted by direct contact with infectious droplets. Less commonly it is spread airborne.

DEP Will Monitor Air at Three Local Schools

The Environmental Protection Agency says it will be monitoring air quality around 62 schools in 22 states including three in Allegheny County. The sites were chosen based on computer modeling, local air monitoring agencies and a recent series of stories in a national newspaper. DEP Spokesperson Patrick Egan says the monitoring will begin in the next three months and will take samples 10 of the following 60 days. As many as 187 pollutants will be tracked. In the region the Allegheny County health Department will monitor air at schools in the Sto-Rox, Clairton, and South Allegheny Schools Districts. The full list of schools that will be monitored can be found on the EPA's Web site. Results of the study will be posted on the same site. If high levels of contaminants are detected, the agency will take steps to reduce the pollution. Sto-Rox Superintendent Fran Serenka says she is pleased her elementary school was chosen. She says the equipment will be installed on the roof of the school. The school was named in the newspaper article last year as having some of the worst air in the nation. Serenka says this test will give her a better picture of the true air quality. She says if the results come back showing there are dangerous levels of pollution she will take steps to keep the air quality in the school itself as healthy as possible and then begin using her bully pulpit to force changes at higher levels.

House Leader to PA AG: Consider Leaving Post

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Todd Eachus is raising the question of whether Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett should step down before embarking on a campaign for governor. However, the Democratic lawmaker is stopping short of telling the AG to quit. Corbett is in the middle of an investigation into legislative abuses. So far he has filed charges against a hand full of Democrats. Just recently he filed charges against former Democratic whip Mike Veon in an unrelated corruption case. He has not filed charges against any Republicans so far. Corbett says he is doing a through investigation and not working on any lawmaker’s timetable. In the meantime Corbet is said to be considering a run for Governor. He hasn't officially announced, but he's filed the paperwork to form an exploratory committee. Rep. Eachus notes former Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell resigned before running for governor, and says Corbett should consider doing the same. He says, “There's past practice from other attorney generals in other states, that they felt that they couldn't balance the full-time effort to the attorney general's position against the balance of a full-time campaign. Because running for governor is a full-time job.” Eachus says he's simply raising the issue, and isn't taking a stand on whether Corbett should step down. A Corbett spokesman says the Attorney General will keep "working full time.”

PA's Jr. Senator Says GM Firing OK

Senator Bob Casey says the Obama Administration had the right to ask General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner to step down. The senator says since the company is receiving public support the President could take such a step. General Motors and Chrysler received 17.4 billion dollars in federal aid this winter, and are in the process of appealing for more funds. However, Casey says the government shouldn't have the final say on organizational decisions, but needs to at least be involved in discussions. He says, “I think you can strike that balance between having accountability and transparency and input, and not take it so far that you scare Wall Street.” President Obama is giving GM 60 days to come up with a new strategic plan. Once those guidelines are submitted, he'll decide whether to provide the company with more federal funding.

State Senate Slow to Move on Bills

Not one bill has been signed into law yet this state legislative session. Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi’s spokesperson Erik Arneson says that may change soon. So far, the Senate has passed 20 bills-that's one less than the House has approved but no measures have gotten the support of both chambers. Legislation allowing parents to keep children on family health insurance plans until their late twenties or thirties has cleared both chambers but with slightly different language. Arneson says he's hopeful lawmakers can clear up differences and agree on a final version of that bill in the weeks to come. “We should be able to get one of those bills to the governor hopefully in April. The Senate had passed that measure late last year. The House just didn't have time to consider it. Now early in this session we've both passed versions of it. So yeah, there's no reason that shouldn't be able to get to the Governor's desk.” In all, 671 bills have been introduced in the Senate, and 117 have been reported out of committee. Arneson notes the Senate has spent the majority of its time focusing on budget negotiations, though, saying that's the General Assembly's top priority this year.

Sustainable Communities Get Rating Tool

A nationwide sustainable development advocacy group presented its plans this morning in Pittsburgh to create a new tool to help rate local government’s efforts to create sustainable communities. Lynn Barker is the program director for the STAR Community Index. She says they are still building the tool but they know it will not just deal with green issues. She says the advisory panel quickly decided to include all 3 pillars included in the original definition of Sustainability; Environment, Economy and Society. Barker says under Environment, committees are dealing with natural systems, energy & climate and planning & design issues. Under the heading of Economy, the committees are exploring economic disparities and workforce & training. (Including living wage and job creation) Finally, the pillar of Society includes education & the arts, Social equity & affordability and health & safety. Barker says the committees are trying to figure out how one tool can compare the efforts of large and small communities. She says the goal is for the STAR Community Index to not only be an effective yardstick but also a guide to communities just starting to explore the idea of sustainability. Barker says they are looking at the LEED certification concept as a model. She says until those guidelines were issued and the rating system devised, the construction industry was grappling with the “hows” and “whys” of green building. She says after the certification was introduced green building practices were standardized and became much more mainstream. She says she hopes this will give guidance to elected officials waning to launch sustainability initiatives and rewards to those already dong a good job.

Free Pickup Held for Freon Appliances

During the month of April, the Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) hopes to collect at least 1,000 household appliances containing the refrigerant Freon from Allegheny County residents. The service aims to help the environment by preventing improper disposal of the appliances. PRC Regional Director Dave Mazza says participants can help their pocketbooks as well as the environment. "If the average homeowner were to call a licensed Freon removal company, which is what you're required to do to properly dispose of one of these items, it can cost anywhere from $40 to $60," says Mazza. "It really is a cost savings for consumers." Freon was banned from landfills by the Clean Air Act of 1990, after it was discovered that the refrigerant was dangerous to the ozone levels of the atmosphere. Breathing in large amounts of Freon can also cause asphyxiation. Mazza says 95% of the appliances will be recycled, including the parts containing Freon. Those interested in disposing of their appliances should call Appliance Warehouse toll-free at 1-888-463-7366 to schedule a free pickup.

Hope Remains for North Park Greenway

A group that's trying to preserve land near North Park has not met its fundraising goal. Today had been the deadline for the Allegheny Land Trust to close on the sale of about 75 acres of land. But the property owner has given the group another month to try to raise more than $500,000. The group is about 85% there.

Executive Director Roy Kraynyk says keeping that land natural is important because it absorbs stormwater, reducing the threat of flooding during heavy rains. He also says the land along Irwin Run, which would be known as the North Park Greenway, traps silt that would otherwise flow into North Park Lake. The lake's natural fish and wildlife habitats have been threatened by the accumulation of silt and sediment.

Under the terms of the sale, the Allegheny Land Trust would own the property, but it would remain undeveloped and open to the public forever.

Report Gives States Policy Solutions To Increase Childhood Activity Outdoors

The National Wildlife Federation has released a report with comprehensive policy solutions to guide states in their effort to increase the amount of time children spend outdoors. The report notes that while many states have implemented programs or initiatives to combat childhood obesity none of the states they looked at had a comprehensive plan or policy that spanned education, recreation and public health.

The report found that while parents want their children to spend more time outside they do not want that time to be spent unsupervised and blame computers, television and video games for keeping their children indoors.

The National Wildlife Federation's report recommends that any legislation be comprehensive and include public health agencies, recreation agencies and schools. By increasing the time children spend outdoors the NWF says children will combat obesity and attention deficit disorder, improve performance in school, and support healthy and active communities.

Monday, March 30, 2009

CMU Takes Over Smart Grid Planning Model

The Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has taken control of a tool developed by IBM that could save utilities millions of dollars while improving the nations power grid. The “Smart Grid Maturity Model” is a tool that combines and assess efforts by electric companies that have undertaken efforts to upgrade to smart grid technologies. From that data, it creates a model that other utilities can use to make sure they go about the process in the most efficient way possible. The electricity grid has been described as the “largest and most complex machine in the world.” Experts say it is now critically overburdened. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if the North American grid were 5% more efficient, the energy savings would equate to eliminating the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from 53 million cars. The Smart Grid Maturity Model will serve as a strategic framework for utilities, vendors, regulators, and consumers that have a role in smart grid transformation -- from technological to regulatory to organizational. SEI has been building and operating efficiency models since the 80’s. Deputy Director Bill Wilson says they have not had a chance to play with the model yet. He says the first step will be to evaluate the model, determine what information is and is not relevant and then talk to industry stakeholders about their experiences and needs. Paul Nielsen, CEO and director of the SEI says, "The Smart Grid Maturity Model developed by IBM creates a roadmap of activities, investments, and best practices that leads to creating a smart grid. Utilities using the model will be able to establish the appropriate development path, communicate the strategy and vision, and assess current opportunities."

Mayors Gather to Discuss Solar Energy

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is attending the 2nd Annual Solar America Cities Meeting in San Antonio today and tomorrow. Ravenstahl will join four other mayors in a panel discussion about the incorporation of solar energy into their respective regions.

Also on the panel is John Hieftje, Mayor of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hiefjte says, similar to Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor does not receive much sunlight, but despite this lack of rays, his city has already implemented solar energy practices into some agencies including city firehouses.

Likewise, Pittsburgh will also switch to a solar thermal hot water heater at a city firehouse this summer. Last June Pittsburgh was awarded a $400,000 grant as one of the inaugural 13 Solar America Cities. The goal of the grant program is not just solar panel installation, but how city government can remove barriers to the use of solar technology and encourage its implementations by citizens and businesses. Pittsburgh’s Office of Sustainability will also continue to review and audit city facilities to determine the feasibility of adding solar power.

Lawmakers and Power Companies Debate Rate Caps

A measure Democratic House leaders characterize as a top priority would phase in likely electricity rate cap increases over a three-year period rather than all at once. But utility companies have a big problem with some of the bill's language. Electricity rate caps in Pennsylvania begin expiring next year, which means some consumers could see their bills shoot up by as much as 40 percent. House Bill 20 would limit the increase to an annual maximum of %15 over a three-year period. It would also allow consumers to defer payments. The measure is currently before the Consumer Affairs committee, and will likely see a full House vote at some point this spring. George Lewis is a spokesman for electric company PPL. He says the corporation and other utilities agree with the spirit of the measure, but want the option of charging interest on those deferred rate hikes. He says, “Allowing customers to defer payments is, in effect, a loan that the utility company is making to its customers. We still will have to borrow money in order to pay the electricity suppliers that we have under the contracts we've already signed.” A spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus says House leaders are willing to negotiate details, but insists easing the financial burden on consumers, and not utilities, is the top priority.

Session Starts But No Laws Signed

This year's General Assembly session has been underway for about three months and some are wondering if anything is being accomplished by the House of Representatives. A lot of attention has been focused on how to spend Pennsylvania's portion of the federal stimulus package, but at the same time committees have been meeting and votes are being cast. To date, 1,130 bills have been introduced. 73 of them have reported out of committee. Of those, 36 have cleared the Appropriations Committee, as well, and 21 have been passed by the full House. Bob Caton, a spokesman for House Speaker Keith McCall, says some of the legislation has been substantive, “Just last week we passed a bill allowing parents and guardians to extend health insurance benefits to their children up to the age of 29. And given this economic climate, you have a lot of students graduating from college and having to move home and work part time and not have full-time insurance available to them. So this is definitely improving access.” Most early votes have been bipartisan , with near-unanimous approval from members. (The insurance measure passed 190-2.) Tougher and more controversial measures, like Governor Rendell's video poker proposal, likely won't be addressed until later on in the session. A Look at the senate comes tomorrow.

Pittsburgh Organizing Group Hosts Market Square Rally

The Pittsburgh Organizing Group, a self-described anarchist organization, is sponsoring an event they call the “Financial Fools Day” rally to express concern about the current global economic crisis. The rally is scheduled for April 1st—Wednesday—in Market Square at 4 p.m.

Lindsey Praksti says people supporting the rally want a global system that puts people ahead of profits and preserves the environment.

There will be poetry, music and speakers—some from co-sponsors Codepink Women for Peace, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, and Landslide Community Farm.

After the rally, marchers will visit what Praksti calls “purveyors of corporate globalization”—PNC and BNY Mellon Banks, plus payday lenders, and city and county government buildings.

Select Committee to Review State Contracting

State Representative Jake Wheatley, who represents about 15 Pittsburgh neighborhoods, recently passed legislation establishing a select committee to review the issuance of all state contracts from the years 2000 to 2008. The committee, which will be composed of 4 House Democrats and 3 Republicans, will review the amount of state contracts awarded to minority-, women-, and disadvantaged-owned businesses. Wheatley says prior to the Rendell administration, women and minority-owned businesses received less than one percent of all state contracts. Since Rendell took office in 2003, that number has reached as high as twelve percent and settled around five to six percent. Wheatley says he's happy with this improvement but would like to see more, especially here in the western half of the state where minority- and women-owned businesses receive less than one percent of all state contracting in the region. The select committee will also review ways to increase state contracting to women- and minority-owned businesses. A report from the committee is scheduled in six months. Wheatley says it's a crucial time to review state contracting practices, especially since billions of dollars in stimulus money will be flowing into the state. Local minority- and women-owned businesses are encouraged to contact Wheatley's office to testify before the select committee about their experiences with state contracting.

Legislation Proposes Change In County Pension Fund

State Representative Matt Smith has proposed legislation that would change how Allegheny County calculates pension payments. The proposed legislation would eliminate overtime pay when retirement benefits are calculated. This change would be in effect only for new employees of the county who are hired after the bill becomes law. The legislation projects savings of up to $18 million for the county and $18 million in matching member contributions. The legislation would take effect only in Allegheny county but Smith says that if it is successful he hopes that it could serve as a model for other pension programs throughout the state.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pitt Library Showcases Three Mile Island Documents

Nancy Watson has a task on her hands that most would find overwhelming. Over one thousand full boxes of notes and documents sit in her attic, waiting to be sorted through to find a mere handful of papers. The strange part? She loves her work.

Pitt's Dick Thornburgh Archives house nearly all of the former Pennsylvania governor's personal and professional paperwork; from his time as an undergrad at Yale to his prominent role in the Three Mile Island fiasco, most of his documented life is in Watson's hands. In remembrance of the 30th anniversary of the meltdown, she has prepared an informative display for the Hillman Library at Pitt. Included in the showcase will be newspaper clippings, personal memos to staff members, wire stories to the state Capitol, and many other items from the time of the accident. Watson says Thornburgh had one of the most central roles in the entire incident. "The federal government was involved, political figures and mayors of nearby towns were involved, the company that owned the plant was involved... but the decision making, and the need to convey the news to the public... really fell to him."

Watson says there is an entire generation of young people around today that may know nothing about the Three Mile Island accident -- though it affects them more than they might know. "There were no licenses given out subsequently... The threat and the concern for safety just closed down the subject of creating and building more nuclear plants." But now that stigma is fading, however slowly, and the possibility of using nuclear energy is becoming more and more promising. Watson says if we do choose to use nuclear energy in America, we can and should take a lesson from what happened at Three Mile Island. "It has exacted caution about the safety of nuclear plants in a way that I think would not have been true if Three Mile Island had not happened," says Watson. Anyone interested in viewing Watson's display should head to the Hillman Library at Pitt, where it will be showing for the next few months.

Listen to NPR's coverage of the 30th anniversary.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Environmental Groups Call For Hour-Long Blackout

Still looking for that easy way to save money and help the environment? It's simple -- just turn out your lights. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is asking all households and businesses across the world to shut off any unecessary lights or appliances for "Earth Hour" Saturday night, from 8:30 to 9:30. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection is also urging state residents to participate. DEP spokesman John Repetz says the WWF uses this as more of a symbolic event to raise awareness than as a consistent campaign. "[Last year,] they did notice a two percent drop in electrical usage in some areas. It might not seem significant, but what we're hoping is people will understand that they don't need all those lights on at one time," says Repetz. "Perhaps an event like this brings you back to reality and makes you realize that something as simple as turning out those unused lights can pay big dividends." Governor Ed Rendell is also in strong support of the effort: the lights of the Capitol Dome in Harrisburg will be blackened for Earth Hour. The WWF estimates that as many as 50 million people worldwide took part in last year's event.

30th Anniversary of Accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant

March 28th is the 30th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg.

Larry Foulke, Director of Nuclear Programs at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering says the event caused a great scare but not one death or injury, and a Swiss study in 2001 found that nuclear had fewer fatalities per megawatt than other forms of power generation.

Foulke believes we should build more nuclear power plants because they produce no carbon dioxide, or sulfur or nitrous oxides, and the necessary uranium is available from friendly countries--Canada and Australia.

Foulke says nuclear waste is compact and 97% of it consists of reusable uranium, which future generations will most likely re-fabricate to use in nuclear power plants.

While it's safe to store the waste where generated, as is done now, Foulke thinks it would be preferable to store all the waste at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, where it could be protected.

DCED Gets Fed Stimulus Funds

252-million federal stimulus dollars are being directed toward a program run by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The Weatherization Assistance Program upgrades homes of lower income commonwealth residents with insulation and ventilation. The goal of the program is to cut back on home heating costs. Acting DCED Secretary George Cornelius told House Appropriations Committee members this week the federal boost will lead to a major expansion of the $30-40 million program. He says, “Obviously when you're gearing up from 30 to 40 million to 252 million, on top of the 30 to 40 million, we've got a lot more people involved in this.” Cornelius says training for the program right now is only available in Williamsport so the first dollars spent will go to opening new training facilities. The department will also be expanding eligibility limits. Right now, residents making up to sixty percent of Pennsylvania's median salary can take part. That figure will expand to 200 percent. Federal law requires the higher limit.

Single Payer Healthcare to be discussed at CMU

A daylong conference Saturday will delve into the various aspects of competing and complimenting healthcare proposals making their way through Congress and the Pennsylvania Legislature. The event at CMU begins at 9:00am and runs till 4:30. State Senator Jim Ferlo and Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto will be among those conducting classes at the free event. Ferlo says this is a great way for those who are passionate about the idea of a single payer approach to healthcare reform to get the latest information. He says they will then be armed to go out and promote the cause among fellow citizens and to lobby their elected officials. The event at Doherty Hall is sponsored by Pennsylvania for Single-payer Healthcare (PUSH) and co-sponsored by Healthcare4ALLPA.org. A free lunch will be provided to anyone who pre-registers but registration is not required to attend.

Local Nurse Attends President's Virtual Town Hall

A nurse at Allegheny General Hospital was in the White House audience for President Barack Obama's virtual town hall meeting today. Cathy Stoddart says she was sitting just to the President's right, along with several other nurses with the Service Employees International Union. Stoddart says she believes the President is sticking to promises he made during the campaign to reform health care.

Stoddart has spoken out in the past in support of nurse-patient ratios, ending mandatory overtime, and other steps she says would improve the quality of care. She says health care can also be more affordable if hospitals have incentives to encourage more preventive care. She says she often sees patients only when they're really sick... and many of them could have avoided the hospital altogether if they'd just known more about how to take care of themselves.

Stoddart says she thinks the federal budget would be a down payment on many of the changes she supports. And she says she hopes health care professionals remain part of the discussion on making health care more affordable... because they know where the waste is.

Sudanese Makes Life in Pittsburgh

The humanitarian crisis in Sudan has been ebbing and flowing for decades and with the recent moves in Khartoum to eject international aid organizations, the situation could be coming to another peak. While much of the focus now is in the Darfur region of that country, Pittsburgh has played host to refugees from the southern portion Sudan for nearly all of the last decade. In 2001 John Awouk landed in Pittsburgh with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He fled his home in 1987 as a 7-year-old and lived for years with other “Lost Boys” in a refugee camp in Kenya. He was greeted at the Pittsburgh International Airport by a representative of Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh who took him to a furnished apartment with enough food to last him until he could receive food stamps. Catholic Charities helped him find a construction job and continue his education. Awuok is now working 35 hours a week at a local food store, just weeks from graduating from Point Park University and is volunteering with the refugee office that once helped him. Listen to more about his life and the support services he received.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

City and County Receive $11.5 Million In Stimulus Money

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were given a tour of CCAC training facilities for welding, heating and air conditioning today. They announced the release of stimulus dollars to Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh to be used for creating green jobs. Allegheny County received $8.1 million, and Pittsburgh received $3.4 million. "Green jobs" are considered to be professions that help to conserve energy, reduce a building's or a person's carbon footprint, or help conserve energy. U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle says the secretaries chose to come to Pittsburgh because of its efforts to create green jobs and collaborate with colleges such as CCAC.

VisitPittsburgh: Good 2008, Hopeful 2009

The region’s visitor and convention promotion agency says it did well last year but things will be tight in 2009. At its annual meeting Thursday, VisitPittsburgh released data showing 573 meetings and conventions were booked in 2008, including 43 conventions. That compares to 454 meetings and conventions booked in 2007. VisitPittsburgh Vice President for Marketing Craig Davis admits many of the events in 2008 were booked before the downturn in the economy, but he says bookings going forward are still strong compared to other cities. He says Pittsburgh has the advantage of being within a short plane trip or a half-day car drive of most of the east coast and Midwest, which helps keep travel costs low. He says hotel and room rental is also lower than most alternative cities. Davis notes Pittsburgh's hotel occupancy in 2008 increased by 2.5% over 2007. That makes Pittsburgh the second-highest ranked city in the country for hotel occupancy growth. Davis says as they build their budget for 2009, the agency is expecting a 7% drop in revenues from hotel taxes. Putting further downward pressure on VisitPittsburgh’s budget is the threat of cuts at the state level. The state provides about 20% of the organization’s budget and the governor’s proposed budget calls for a 40% reduction in state funding for all tourism agencies. Davis says they are lobbying to have that funding restored.

Hearing Held To Discuss Pension Funds

A joint hearing of the State House Committee and State Government Committee was held today to discuss the financial condition of state pension funds. Because of the recent economic situation pension funds have been affected state wide. The hearing spotlighted the difficulties of two pension funds, state employees and teachers. Reasons for struggling pension funds include investments losing money, an increase in retiree's, and an aging workforce who will be retiring soon. Solutions for the pension fund problems are hard to come by and may include changes in employee and employer contributions.

DEP Secretary Signs New State Water Plan

Five years of public meetings and analytical research have culminated in the passing of a new state water plan, which will outline a prudent allocation of the state's water resources for the next 15 years. The last update of the plan was in 1983 -- prompting state lawmakers to demand a new one in a 2002 legislation. Environmental Protection acting Secretary John Hanger says the goal of the DEP was to help Pennsylvanians with different wants and needs reach a compromise. "Each region came to the table with its own priorities -- protecting drinking water supplies, creating jobs, avoiding devastating floods... but the statewide committee was able to craft a document that takes into account these many conflicting priorities and demands," says Hanger. Executive Director of the DEP's Water Planning Office John Hines says a new water plan was needed not only to address changes that have occurred in the past 25 years, but to look forward to challenges the future may present. "We don't want to get in a situation like California, Georgia, or Alabama... where they have been coupled with year after year of serious drought and their water resources are depleted," says Hines. To take a look at the state water plan, visit the DEP's website and select "State Water Plan," under the Hot Topics menu.

SportsWorks is Coming Back

The Carnegie Science Center says it will open a new version of the once popular SportsWorks exhibit. The $5 million, 12,000 square-foot facility will be placed in the 20,000 square-foot building being erected in the center’s parking lot. The goal is to have the new SportsWorks open by Thanksgiving of this year. The rest of the building will be filled with classrooms and the Science Center's Science new “Your Neighborhood” youth program. Science Center co-Director Ann Metzger says the new SportsWorks will once again offer all types of physical activities but rather than focusing on the science of sports it will focus more on health, and how the body works. The first SportsWorks opened in 2001 in a building to the north of the main building. The exhibit was closed to make way for the bodies exhibition and then later the Titanic show. The building was eventually razed to make way for the Port Authority’s north shore connector. Highmark has entered into a 3-year naming sponsorship agreement. Metzger says, “More than 3 million visitors climbed, bounced, sprinted, and jumped their way through the dozens of activities” in the old building. "A new, updated SportsWorks is a key component of expanding and refining visitor experiences at Carnegie Science Center," said Metzger.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Corbett Charges Veon

Charges of theft, criminal conspiracy and conflict of interest have been filed against former House Democratic Minority Whip Mike Veon of Beaver County. One of his staffers faces similar charges. PA Attorney General Tom Corbett says the investigation centered on the Beaver Initiative for Growth. (BIG) BIG was a non-profit entity created by Veon in 1991. The initiative was mostly funded by state grants and Corbett alleges the funds were misspent to the point of criminality. The Attorney General says a grand jury determined that BIG was established primarily for the personal and political benefit of Mike Veon and he controlled every dollar that left the charity’s coffers.

Although Veon formed BIG in 1991 and in the first 11 years collected less than one million dollars. However, between 2003 and 2006 BIG received approximately $9.9 million in grant money. Corbett says of the $4.7 million spent by BIG from 2004 to 2006, only 23% was used toward actual program expenses. The rest went to salaries, consultants and administrative costs. Veon is alleged to have control over who was chosen for the work and often awarded no-bid consulting contracts. The Grand jury fund that BIG operated an office in Midland, Beaver County and an office in Pittsburgh. The offices were never staffed by a BIG employee and were allegedly used as campaign offices. Further the grand jury alleges at least $20,000 was taken from BIG and sent to Veon’s legislative staff for their help during political campaigns.

The grand jury also found that between 2003 and 2007 the company Delta Development received more than $1 million from BIG. During that same period of time, Delta Development made significant political contributions to Veon and other House Democratic candidates. Corbett alleges Delta Development provided little to no work for the funds they received from BIG and gave Veon’s brother, Mark, a $160,000 a year position.

In all Veon could face 162 years in prison and a $350,000 fine. He is to turn himself into authorities Thursday morning.

Pittsburgh International to Utilize Space

Pittsburgh International Airport is allotting approximately 440 acres for cargo warehousing and distribution. Allegheny County Airport Authority Spokesperson JoAnn Jenny says construction for the space is to begin in the fall. Jenny says it's located in a foreign trade zone, making the area desirable for such a process. She says Pittsburgh is a great place to have this because of its central location, having access to cities on the east coast and Canada. Also, unlike many airports in major cities, Pittsburgh has the capacity to expand. Jenny says transferred goods will be processed in a shorter amount of time, since airports like the ones in Miami and New York are busier.

State of Black America, Black Pittsburgh

The National Urban League's "State of Black America 2009" report shows it's the best of time and worst of times for African-Americans. According to the Urban League it's the best of times because the U.S. has its first African-American president, and the worst of times because of the ongoing gap between blacks and whites in jobs, housing and education. The report indicates that blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to live in poverty, and six times as likely to be incarcerated. Esther Bush, President and C-E-O of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, says the country needs the president to address the economic troubles facing all Americans across gender, cultural and racial lines. Bush says Pittsburgh appears to be doing better in these economic troubles than many other urban areas but the employment gap between whites and blacks remains significant and must be addressed.
Click here to listen to an interview with Esther Bush


The State Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation yesterday that disability organizations have been advocating for for years.

The 2002 Supreme Court decision ruled that the execution of people with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution- which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. How that is determined is up to each individual state. The bill was was introduced by Senator Mary Jo White.

In past legislative sessions, similar bills have been introduced but not passed.

The bill asks for a clinical pre-trial determination of mental retardation.

2010 Census

Next year's census will be unlike any other done before because it will use handheld computers with GPS tracking devices to take home and address information. Philadelphia Regional Census Center Deputy Regional Director Ted Roman says the 2000 census was taken on all paper, including paper forms and paper maps. Pittsburgh is a part of the Philadelphia Regional Census Center. The computers are being used in order to create the most accurate data possible. Roman says the information entered will be transmitted on an hourly basis to the control database as encrypted files to ensure security and anonymity. Keeping information security is a primary goal for the Census Bureau. The questionnaires, which will be sent to all valid addresses in March 2010, will list seven simple topics that include name, race and age.

Number of Uninsured "Worse Than Epidemic"

A study blending US Census numbers and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality research shows more than a quarter of Pennsylvanians under the age of 65 were uninsured some time in the last 2 years. The study by Families USA found nationally the numbers were even higher. Nearly a third of all non-elderly Americans went without insurance at some point since January of 2007. Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack says in Pennsylvania the uninsured were not just bouncing from one coverage to the next. 69% percent of those who were uninsured went without coverage for at least 6 months. Pollack says if you dig deeper into the numbers you see that three quarters of those who were uninsured still had at least one breadwinner in the household. He also points out that the problem hits minorities hardest. The data shows while 24% of non-Hispanic whites were caught up in the statistics 37% of African Americans went without insurance and 46% of Hispanics were uninsured at some time in 2007 or 2008. Pollack calls the situation “worse than an epidemic.”

More Gas Drilling Proposed in State Land

Republican State Representatives presented a plan to expand natural gas drilling through 390,000 additional acres of forest land in Pennsylvania. The proposal is an alternative to Governor Ed Rendell's proposed gas severance tax. Many issues stem from companies eager to tap natural gas that remains in the Macellus Shale rock formation. The State Budget and Policy Director Sharon Ward says in an issued statement that natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale comes with substantial environmental costs.On the other hand, House Republican Leader Sam Smith says an expansion would bring in an estimated $260 million in revenue annually and also create 7,000 private sector jobs. Rendell's 5 percent tax on gas production is estimated to provide $236 million to the state budget in its first full year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

City Council Discusses Campaign Finance Reform

Pittsburgh City Council today held a post agenda meeting to address campaign finance reform legislation proposed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Last year the Mayor used his veto power to strike down a campaign finance reform bill that was passed by council in June. The Mayor and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato have proposed identical legislation to both City and County Council that would enact campaign finance reform for all elected city offices and all county elected offices. Left out of the bill are all the separate municipalities that reside within Allegheny County.

Many council members were upset that the Mayor is trying to pass his own version of a finance reform bill after he vetoed the legislation that City Council passed. Others on council voiced support for statewide reform. The proposed legislation would allow for individuals and partnerships to give up to $4,600 per four year election cycle and political action campaigns would be allowed to give $10,000. Currently there are no limits on campaign contributions in the city.

Pittsburgh State Office Building Will Be Sold

Pennsylvania's Department of General Services is moving ahead with the sale of the State Office Building in downtown Pittsburgh to River Vue Associates of Canonsburg for $4.6 million. General Services Secretary James Creedon says by selling the building the state will avoid paying nearly $65 million in renovations to bring it up to current standards. Creedon says the state will save $14 million by selling the building and moving the 800 state employees into leased space in 3 buildings in downtown Pittsburgh.

"It will also help to generate continued growth for downtown Pittsburgh as well as put the property back on the tax rolls, providing an estimated half-million dollars in annual property taxes for local government and the school district."

Earlier, Auditor General Jack Wagner criticized the proposed deal calling it "a fire sale" and saying decentralizing state services by moving departments into 3 different locations would not be good for residents.

Secretary Creedon says the state employees will relocate starting this fall into the Offices at Piatt Place on Fifth Avenue; the Chamber of Commerce Building on Seventh Avenue; and, 11 Stanwix Street.

Creedon says the private development plans for a hotel and apartments and this will create spin-off jobs for the service industry.

Campaign To Focus On Reinvesting In Local Communities

A new campaign formed through a coalition of environmental, conservation, housing and research groups is working to help shape public policy that will benefit Pennsylvania residents through the creation of jobs, and the strengthening of the state's economy. The campaign, entitled Pennsylvania Works!, is made up of groups like PennFuture, 10,000 friends of Pennsylvania, The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, PennEnvironment, Preservation Pennsylvania and many others. One of the main goals of the campaign is to ensure redevelopment of communities and the investment in rebuilding the states infrastructure. The campaign will work by collectively lobbying elected officials and raising awareness on the issues they are working to address.

Former Rendell Official Joins Local Business Group

The new CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development says he thinks the energy sector may hold some of the region's biggest opportunities. Dennis Yablonsky began his new job at the helm of the local business group today. He says southwestern Pennsylvania has a lot of assets that fit with a surging interest in energy, from the knowledge base at local universities to resources like coal and natural gas.

From 2003 until last October, Yablonsky served as Pennsylvania's Secretary of Community and Economic Development. Before that, he led Pittsburgh's Digital and Life Sciences Greenhouses, two local business incubators. Yablonsky says he thinks his experience at the state level gives him a unique perspective on issues like workforce development, the legislative process, and regional consolidation.

To listen to more from Yablonsky in an interview with DUQ's Katherine Fink, click here.

Food Bank Expands Operations

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is responding to a rise in demand by opening their Duquesne warehouse once a month to provide direct relief. Since last summer, 2,000 new families have been turning to the food bank network to help cover meal time. Rising joblessness, cuts in hours and benefits are all contributing factors according to the Food Bank Communications Director Iris Valanti. She says lots of people need a little extra help making it to the end of the month when food stamps and savings run out. She says supplementing operations through the warehouse cuts out wait time and distribution costs. The Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank provides food to 380 agencies serving 120,000 people in eleven counties. The Duquesne warehouse will be open on the fourth Thursday of every month from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM, at 1 N. Linden St. in the Duquesne RIDC park.

Duquesne Law Dean Headed to Texas

Former Duquesne University law dean Donald Guter will be the next president and dean of South Texas College of Law. Guter is currently on the faculty at Duquesne's law school and served as its dean from 2005 through 2008. He was ousted as dean in December when Duquesne President Charles Dougherty gave Guter 24 hours to resign or be removed. Dougherty cited unmet expectations by Guter to work with the university's administrative team. There was a student demonstration on campus by Guter's supporters who questioned the reasons behind his ouster. Guter takes on his new role at South Texas College of Law in August. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2002 as a Rear Admiral, Judge Advocate General's Corps.

PA Education Secretary Promotes School Breakfast, Allows Eating in the Classroom

For many of us growing up, food in the classroom was against the rules. It seems those rules have changed. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak today sat down to breakfast with several Harrisburg School District third-graders to unveil and promote his new directives for school breakfast programs. Zahorchak's plan includes allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom and counting that time towards instruction. The changes aim at encouraging students to eat breakfast regularly. Spokesperson for the Secretary Leah Harris says the directives apply to all students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. Studies show that students who eat breakfast regularly are better behaved and score higher academically. These initiatives took effect today.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rendell Dismisses Turnpike Chair

Governor Ed Rendell has nominated a Philadelphia lawyer to replace the fired Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin. Michael Pratt, a native of Fayette County, is a partner in the Pepper Hamilton law firm. He served as a deputy city solicitor for Philadelphia. Pratt's nomination needs approval from the state Senate. The governor fired Rubin yesterday for allegations that emerged during former state Senator Vince Fumo's corruption trial.
In a letter made public by the Rendell Administration, the governor told Rubin the decision has a lot to do with the jury's "guilty" verdict on charges that Rubin's company never did any work on a 150-thousand dollar state contract.
Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo says the governor spent the weekend reviewing court transcripts and consulting with legal advisers.

"They determined between those two that it was both prudent and legal to remove Mitch Rubin from the Turnpike Commission."

Republican State Senator Rob Wonderling, who chairs the Transportation Committee, says Rendell made the right decision.
He expects a new Commissioner will be named soon.

"I believe it's imminent. I spoke to the governor's office this morning, and I think a name will be forthcoming very shortly."

Wonderling says he'll work with the Administration to plan confirmation hearings for the new nominee.
Last week a federal jury convicted Fumo on all 137 counts and convicted Rubin's wife, Ruth Arnao, a longtime Fumo aide, of all 45 counts against her.

Judge Strikes Down Residency Restriction

U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster has voided an Allegheny County ordinance that would have restricted where registered sex offenders may live in the county once they've served their sentences. The ordinance was passed unanimously by County Council in October 2007 and was intended to ban sex offenders from living within a half mile of schools, licensed child care facilities, community centers and public parks. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ordinance in court saying it amounted to after-the-fact punishment and that offenders would have virtually no place to live in the county. Judge Lancaster's ruling says the ordinance conflicts with state laws meant to help rehabilitate sex offenders and reintegrate them into society. County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, the prime sponsor of the ordinance, says he's somewhat surprised by the judge's ruling because the legislation was well researched with 6 months of meetings and hearings. Gastgeb says numerous local jurisdictions have been allowed to have residency requirements and that council "watered down" his bill to address any possible legal challenges. Gastgeb says he wants to meet with Chief Executive Dan Onorato and the county solicitor before the county decides whether to appeal.

Doctors Argue Taser Risks

The Use of Force Working Group, or taser working group, today met with doctors to discuss taser risks. The group, composed of local law enforcement and legal professionals, posed questions and offered their takes on the testimony. Dr. Joe Suyuma of the UPMC Department of Emergency Medicine testified that it’s best to subdue people showing symptoms of “excited delirium” as soon as possible citing the taser as the best method. However, Dr. Andrew Dennis, a Chicago Trauma Surgeon says tasers could cause catastrophic damage to the heart and could harm those subjects in a state of “excited delirium.” The Use of Force Working group was started by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala after several deaths this summer in which tasers were used.

Four Catholic Schools to Close

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has announced the closing of four schools at the end of this school year: St. Titus in Aliquippa, St. Elizabeth Seton in Sheraden, Bishop McDowell in Baldwin, and St. Valentine in Bethel Park.

Father Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for education, says all four schools faced the same basic problem of a declining population of school age children--a situation faced by public schools as well. As enrollment went down, tuition went up, and enrollment then went down further.

For students, Father Stubna says there are other Catholic schools available in their areas, which may have lower tuition, more varied programs and better extracurricular opportunities.

Displaced teachers will get preference when applying for openings at other schools in the diocese.

Dowd Campaigns to End "Pay-to-Play" Politics

Mayoral candidate Patrick Dowd wants voters to "wake up and smell the coffee." The Pittsburgh City Councilman gave away cups of coffee this morning to raise awareness of unethical politics he says occur in city government on a regular basis. Dowd attacked current mayor Luke Ravenstahl for awarding no-bid city contracts in return for campaign contributions. He says these types of policies hurt taxpayers and the city everyday, and are not enough to win re-election. "You can sell city contracts," says Dowd, "but you can't buy votes." Dowd's campaign will consist primarily of canvassing and talking to voters. The primary election is set for May 19th.

Rendell Outlines Green Stimulus Plans

The federal stimulus package is sending $360 million to Pennsylvania for alternative energy projects and the Rendell Administration is making plans on how it will dole out the money. The federal funding will go toward a wide variety of projects, including grants for small businesses and homeowners to purchase and install solar panels. Grants will also be handed out to help Pennsylvania residents improve energy efficiency in their homes and workplaces. Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger says additional stimulus money will go toward larger-scale alternative energy projects like wind farms and methane conversion plants. He says, “All of those projects create real energy, real electricity, real jobs. Increase supply of electricity, help keep our prices moderate, and do all of that with very little pollution.” Hanger says the state will direct money toward established operations with proven track records, so that funds aren't wasted. The Rendell Administration has set up a website, with information on all stimulus projects. Republicans are expected to outline their stimulus priorities later today.

New WVU President Looks Ahead

The new president of West Virginia University says he will spend the next few months learning from faculty members and others about the school's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. James Clements will take the helm at WVU June 30th. He says he's already identified a couple opportunities for the school: first, it has several vacancies in high-level positions like provost and the chancellor of WVU's Health Sciences Center. Clements says he hopes to bring in leaders who have a long-term vision for the school and can work collaboratively. A second opportunity for the school is to become a better economic development engine for the state, Clements says. He says he thinks WVU contributes more to its home state than any other public university in the country.

Clements takes over following a scandal over an MBA degree that led to the departure of his predecessor, Mike Garrison. Clements says all schools go through bumps, and he thinks WVU will recover from this one. Towson University, where Clements now works as provost, had its own scandal that resulted in the departure of its president after only nine months. Mark Perkins left that job in 2002 after a controversy over spending on renovations at his state-owned home.

Chloramine to Be Used in More Local Water

More Pittsburgh-area residents may soon be drinking water treated with chloramine. The West View Water Authority recently notified customers that it will add chloramine during the summer months. The chloramine will replace chlorine, which can, especially in warmer weather, create byproducts linked to bladder cancer and reproductive problems. Pennsylvania-American Water customers in the Pittsburgh area may also soon have chloramine in their water. That utility recently received a construction permit related to the use of chloramine locally. Pennsylvania-American says customers will get three months' notice if and when chloramine is added.

Chloramine is created when chlorine combines with ammonia. And not everyone believes it's a better alternative. Chloramine creates its own byproducts, and some research has suggested that those byproducts are more toxic than the ones created by chlorine. Chloramine also corrodes lead and copper pipes, although many water systems add corrosion inhibitors. Chloramine also kills fish and cannot be used in dialysis machines without being treated first. Some people also believe that chloramine causes breathing and digestive problems.

Carnegie Mellon University Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jeanne VanBriesen says chloramine should not cause any public health problems at the concentrations it's used in drinking water. Chloramine has, though, caused what's known as "swimmer's asthma" in indoor pools. Chloramine is formed there when chlorine in the water combines with organic material on people's skin.

But VanBriesen says if your water provider is switching to chloramine, it's important to remember that the goal is to make the water safer. That was the same reason water providers first started adding chlorine to water in the early 1900s. VanBriesen says it was a huge advance because it greatly reduced water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid. It was only in the 1970s that researchers learned the addition of chlorine posed long-term health risks.

If you missed DUQ's earlier story on chloramine, you can listen to it here.

Natural Gas Prices a Silver Lining in Down Economy

While the economic downturn has made a lot of things less affordable, that hasn't been true of natural gas. Several providers in western Pennsylvania have been lowering their prices since last summer, as production has increased and oil prices have dropped. Large providers are required by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to adjust their rates each quarter based on the wholesale prices they pay. Utilities are not allowed to charge customers more than the commodity price, although that's only one component of their monthly bills. Natural gas providers also add other fees, such as a delivery charge and service charge.

Dominion expects its April 1st filing will reflect a lower commodity rate. A spokesman says the average residential customer paid about $160 in July; that dropped to $116 in January. Equitable Gas recently raised its delivery charge, but a spokesman says lower commodity prices should offset that increase. Columbia Gas says its rates have also been going down.

Smaller natural gas providers are also lowering their rates. Small providers are only required to adjust their commodity prices annually. But in Butler County, Andreassi Gas Company recently petitioned the PUC to lower its rates earlier. Owner Mike Andreassi says that's because prices have already dropped more than eight percent since November, and he wanted to pass on the reduction to his roughly 400 customers. Andreassi says many of his customers are unemployed and will appreciate saving the money now.

Pitt Researchers Create Quick T.B. Test

Currently, it takes weeks or even months to identify and diagnose different strains of the tuberculosis bacterium. Soon, thanks to research done at Pitt and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the process may take as little as a few hours. Dr. Graham Hatfull of Pitt says tiny viruses called bacteriophages infused with a flourescent green gene are the secret behind the speed of this new test. "We can take samples of T.B., add these bacteriophages, allow them to inject their DNA [into the T.B. cells], and we can now see the T.B. cells because they flouresce. They glow green," says Hatfull. In addition, by adding known tuberculosis antibiotics to the bacteriophages, scientists can determine what strains of bacteria the drugs work against -- and those against which they don't work. Though some strains of T.B. are untreatable, Hatfull says it is just as important to identify these victims as well as those they can help. "What is currently happening is they are spreading [untreatable strains] to other patients while they are in the clinic waiting for diagnosis or waiting for treatment," says Hatfull. "At least those patients could be isolated." Hatfull says this method of testing needs to undergo some length of clinical trials, but it should be ready to use as soon as it is deemed safe and practical.

Tax Checkoff Helps Organ Donation Efforts

The deadline to file your Pennsylvania income tax return is less than a month away and several groups are hoping last minute filers will be in a charitable mood with their refunds. In 1994 the Pennsylvania Legislature created the Governor Robert Casey Memorial Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Trust Fund and then gave income tax filers the option to send all or a portion of their refund to the charity. It is now one of five options at the bottom of the PA-40 form. Leslie Best runs the fund. She is the director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Chronic Diseases. She says the funds raised do not go directly to transplanting organs. The funds are used to increase organ donations through awareness and education of the need for organ donors and the easy of becoming one when you renew your drivers licenses. Best says about 40-percent of Pennsylvanians with drivers licenses are signed up as organ donors. That number has been increasing in recent years. She says the educational efforts start in the grade schools and never stop. The fund also gives money to those making live organ donations to help defray travel costs. Best says to make sure the funds are spent wisely, they also have an advisory panel. The panel includes doctors, hospital officials, organ recipients and the families of those who have given organs. The PA 40 tax checkoff is the only revenue source for the organ and tissue donation and recover fund. Last year the support totaled $27,500. While most filers who fill out their own tax forms notice the 5 checkoff options, Best encourages those who use preparers to ask them to take advantage of those options on their behalf.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Taxes on Natural Gas Drilling Proposed

A state government commission has voted to significantly increase permit fees imposed on energy companies drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale formation, but Governor Rendell is still leading a campaign to impose severance fees on the energy industry as well. Rendell claims a tax on Shale extractions could net Pennsylvania more than 100 million dollars next fiscal year, though energy industry advocates dispute that claim. Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger argues a tax can be imposed without choking off economic growth. "There is certainly a number of reasonable ways to impose a tax that will allow the industry to come here, to stay here and to be very profitable, while also contributing to the very important things that state government provides," says Hanger. Stephen Rhoads, the president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, says the proposed 5 percent tax, as well as an additional 4.7 cent levy on every thousand cubic feet extracted, would discourage companies from drilling in Pennsylvania. Hanger says the tax is a common practice that is already in place in 39 other states.

"Water Walk for Women's Rights" Sunday

The second annual "Water Walk for Women's Rights" will take place on World Water Day Sunday. From the Cathedral lawn at the University of Pittsburgh, more than 200 Pittsburghers have already signed up to carry water buckets over a mile-long route through Oakland.

Peace Corps fellow Katherine Stackel says the water buckets symbolize the plight of African women who may spend hours walking miles a day, only to bring home dirty water that leads to the death of many of their children.

All proceeds from the event will go to Tanzania for installation of water filtration systems on homes and schools.

Stackel is with Amizade Global Service Learning and Volunteer Program, which is sponsoring the walk along with a Pitt group--STAND-- that works with the Genocide Intervention Network to buy firewood for Darfur refugees so they won't be subject to rape and violence outside their camps.

Registration will open at 1 pm Sunday, with the walk starting at 2.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fort Pitt Museum May Close

Officials with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have announced that because of proposed budget cuts, six historical sites may be forced to close down. Included are the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh and Bushy Run Battlefield in Westmoreland County. Proposed budget cuts by Governor Rendell would take away 20% of the commission's funding. Alternative funding ideas are being proposed, and possible reductions in staff and operational hours are being examined. The commission plans to hold a series of public hearings in an attempt to find a way to save the historical sites, but no dates have been announced.

Pittsburgh Area Attorney Testifies Against ACORN

Following a hearing today by a U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee, Congressman John Conyers urged the full Judiciary Committee to investigate alleged voter fraud by the activist group ACORN. Mt. Lebanon attorney Heather Heidelbaugh testified before the subcommittee today as vice president of the Republican National Lawyers Association. Heidelbaugh called on the subcommittee to investigate and audit ACORN's Project Vote, which has a $28 million budget itself, to determine whether it should be allowed to maintain its tax exempt status because of apparent misappropriation of charitable contributions.
Heidelbaugh says ACORN does provide information to citizens about issues "that we care about" but "there is a dark side to ACORN." Heidelbaugh told the panel that 60% of the voter registration cards that are submitted by ACORN are fraudulent and the organization has done nothing systematically to hire better workers or provide better training. Heidelbaugh says the illegitimate registration cards are "not an amateurish attempt to register voters" but rather a "nationwide scheme to fraudulently register voters." Heidelbaugh called on the subcommittee to have ACORN and its affiliated entities audited and all government funds to the organization halted until taxpayer dollars to ACORN are properly accounted for.

Promise Expands Schools Students Can Attend

The Pittsburgh Promise has announced that it will be expanding the list of schools where students can use the program's scholarships. Previously the Promise was only available to students who attended any state or public university or private schools within Allegheny County. The new list will now include every college, university or trade school in the state. Funding for the Promise is close to meeting its goals for this year, having received $12 million out of $15 million needed to unlock $10 million in donations made by UPMC.

State Senator Urges Lawmakers to Keep Health Council

An extension for the Health Care Cost Containment Council(HCCCC) is nearing the end. The group, which provides information on health care and hospital costs statewide, was kept alive by an executive order from the Governor's office last year. Now, time is running out for the HCCCC once more, as the temporary reprieve ends June 30th. Though House Republicans voted for a re-enactment of the council, opposition is expected from their Senatorial counterparts. They don't like that Governor Rendell and Senate Democrats like Vincent Hughes are trying to expand the state health insurance program as part of the sustenance of the HCCCC. Hughes says the health care problem is quite broad, though; nearly 200,000 Pennsylvania adults are on the waiting list for the state health insurance program. "We're approaching, in a six or seven year period, an almost 90% raise in health insurance premium costs. The Health Care Cost Containment Council informs us... what we need to do to keep those costs down," Hughes says. Action is expected to be taken later this week.

Humane Society To Hold Electronic Recycling Event

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and Allegheny County have partnered with EarthEcycle to hold a free electronics recycling event. The event begins on March 28th and will last through April 11th. There will be six locations throughout the county where people can drop off their electronic devices. North Park, South Park, Boyce Park and Settlers Cabin Park will have collection points at the swimming pool parking lots. Round Hill Park will have a collection point at the Duck Pond Parking lot and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society will collect at their north shore shelter parking lot. Recycling items is free. The EarthEcycle group will collect the electronics and for every 100,000 pounds will donate $10,000 to the Humane Society with a goal of $100,000. EarthEcycle is able to make a profit on their collections by selling newer electronics to small churches, governments and schools throughout the world.

You can find more details about the types of items accepted and dropoff hours on the Humane Society's website.

State Releases Report on Underage and Binge Drinking

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has released its second biennial report on underage and high-risk drinking in Pennsylvania. The report is required under act 85 of 2006, and provides information on levels and trends of underage drinking, the success of prevention programs throughout the state and strategies that have proven successful.

Some statistics of interest from the report:

- There is a decrease in 6Th, 8Th, 10Th and 12Th graders willingness to try alcohol.
- 2007 marked the lowest total number of underage drinking drivers involved in crashes in the Commonwealth.
- Since 2001 Pennsylvania has noticed a delay in the average age of alcohol experimentation by six months.
- Pennsylvania Seniors (12Th Grade) are similar to the national averages for binge drinking and past 30 day alcohol consumption.
- 3% more college students in Pennsylvania have used alcohol in their life compared to the national average.

Acting director for the bureau of alcohol education Leslie Coombe says it is important that the state distinguish local statistics from statewide numbers and vice versa when deciding on funding levels for local prevention programs and services. Coombe says that even though some numbers, like the 6 month delay in the average age of alcohol experimentation, may seem trivial they are in fact signs that progress is being made and that any delay in this statistic betters the chances of the children from having alcohol dependency later in life.

Local Representative to Review Tax Credit Programs

The 18 tax credit programs of the Commonwealth will be in the spotlight when state officials study their impact and effectiveness this spring. State Representative David Levdansky(D) of Allegheny and Washington Counties will head the examination. Levdansky says that the state is trying to find as many ways as possible to help shorten the budget deficit. "I think it's an appropriate time, given our dire fiscal straits... to take a look at any avenues for gaining revenue, absent of raising taxes," Levdansky says. However, the representative adds that cutting the entire cost of all the tax credit programs, which currently reads at about $350 million, would hardly put a dent in the budget shortfall. "We've got... a $2.3 billion deficit. So even if you eliminated them, what are you going to gain? That's not even one-ninth," Levdansky says. The representative says much of the work will be completed by May, in time for budget negotiations, but additional studies will be performed throughout the year.

PEAL conference

Thursday wrapped up the two-day third annual PEAL conference in Cranberry.

The PEAL center - Peal standing for Parent Education Advocacy Leadership is a federally-funded local non-profit that aims to help the families of those with special needs. Educators and health specialists were also at the conference.

Those there learned of services available to them and listened to speakers from around the country.

Allegheny Pop Falls But the Rate is Slowing

In 2008 Allegheny lost .3% of its population and since the 2000 census, the population has dropped 5.2%. The data shows all of the growth in the county was due to international in migration, which saw a net gain of 1,500 residents. There was a net domestic out migration of 3,600 residents in the same time period. Pennsylvania State Data Center Director Sue Copella says the problematic population drain for Allegheny County is its difference in birth and death rate. Since 2000 deaths have outpaced births by 11,640. The total population change for Allegheny County was -48,373. Copella says the population numbers are not directly related to the regions economy. She says where one should look for clues on the health of the region is in its migration data. Copella says as she looks at the numbers for the county and the region she sees what looks like ski slop: A steep decline followed by a hallowing of the curve. She says it may not be long before the population numbers reverse. One county in the region that has seen growth is Butler County. Since 2000 it has grown by 5.1 percent. The Pittsburgh metro area saw a .1% decline in 2008 to settle at 2,351,192. The Johnstown area fell .5% to 144,319. The state as a whole grew by 1.4%. Allegheny County is now the 30th largest in the nation.

Personal Needs Allowance

A long struggle to get more spending money into the hands of over 9,000 personal care home residents came to an end earlier this year.

The personal needs allowance is the amount of money residents of personal care homes keep out of their supplemental security income every month. Since 1993, it was $60.

Personal care homes are private, state-regulated boarding houses for the elderly or those with disabilities. Approximately 50,000 people live in 1,500 of these homes in Pennsylvania.

For years, advocates, legislators and private citizens worked to get a raise in the allowance.

Late last year, the federal government increased social security benefits for those residents, giving them an additional $25 a month.

Residents say they are happy with the raise.

To listen to a longer version of this story click here:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

DU Professor Develops Cancer-Fighting Compound

Duquesne University Distinguished Professor Dr. Aleem Gangjee has been testing a cancer-fighting drug on mice that seems to kill off cancer tumors without affecting normal cells. He says the compound could fight ovarian, breast and prostate cancers, as well as some types of lung and liver cancer.

Dr. Gangjee says testing is stilling in its early stages, and has not yet been tested on cancer patients. However, he says he does not see any major obstacles against human testing in the future.

New Bill Stops Traveling Games

Despite Governor Ed Rendell’s administration-wide ban on out-of-state traveling last fall, it was recently discovered through a WTAE investigative report that Pennsylvania Gaming Board members had traveled to other sections of the country as well as abroad after the ban was enacted. Local lawmakers are looking to remedy the situation.
State Representative Mike Vereb and Senator Jane Orie today announced a joint legislation to require all government branches and state agencies to submit a list of all out-of-state travels and associating costs, including attendees and receipts. That list would then be submitted to the Pennsylvania Treasurer’s Office, who will then organize a web site to publish these reports for public viewing.
Senator Orie says the money was not coming from taxpayer dollars. However, the money could have been used elsewhere, such as going toward reducing property taxes. She says those members plainly violated the governor’s orders, and traveled to Illinois, Florida, California and Nevada. Internationally, they went to Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Italy. They spent lavishly on hotel rooms and meals, and Senator Orie says it’s inappropriate and uncalled for. She says she hopes that her proposed bill will restore public trust in state agencies and government.

To see WTAE’s investigative report, click here.

Pittsburgh Regional Alliance Announces Economic “Wins” for the Area

Despite the economic downturn, it seems 2008 was a strong year for capital investment in the region, at least according to one local group. The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA), composed of more than fifty private and public sector leaders and development professionals today announced the number of expansion and development projects in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2008 kept pace with the “golden year” of 2007. Dee Peart, President of the PRA says 257 projects were announced in the Pittsburgh region in 2008, compared with 258 projects in 2007, resulting in capital investments of over $4.2 billion and yielding 30,000 jobs. Site Selection magazine also ranks Pittsburgh 7th in the nation among metropolitan areas with more than one million residents. Houston received the number one ranking.

Discrimination Ban Supporters Rally in Harrisburg

Supporters of a measure to ban discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Pennsylvania residents packed the Capitol yesterday to show support for the measure. Now that the equal rights bill is in front of the full House, advocates say they're optimistic it can be signed into law before the year is done. Supporters lined the Rotunda steps and cheered as lawmakers made the case that Pennsylvania is behind the times, when it comes to guaranteeing equal rights based on sexual preference. Sponsor Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill dismissed opponents of the measure, noting 20 states have already passed similar legislation. “The sky will not fall. The world will not end if we stop discriminating against gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered people. It will not happen.” Opponents say the bill would force some religious groups to hire gay employees against their will. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus says there's no set time frame for bringing the measure to a vote. A similar bill died in committee last year.

Turzai: Go Deep on DCED Cuts

A group of fiscally conservative Republicans is making another case for reduced state spending beyond what the governor is calling for. Ed Rendell's spending plan would trim $291-million from the Department of Community and Economic Development's budget.
Republican House Whip Mike Turzai of McCandless wants to go deeper. He's proposing an additional 170-million dollars in DCED cuts. Turzai wants to use the savings to trim the state's personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 2.99. “The goal here is that we want to show that state government is willing to tighten its belts just like families and small businesses are. And that we're willing to help stimulate the economy by returning some of the dollars to them.” Cuts proposed by Turzai and other House Republicans include the elimination of the $28-million opportunity grant program, and $16 million allotted for community and regional development. Turzai says DCED cuts are an area Rendell and Republicans can reach common ground on, though he says he'll outline proposed spending reductions in other departments, as well, over the next few weeks.

Ballet Done to Doo Wop in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Ballet Company opens a new show Thursday that is anything but traditional. “American Rhythms” is done in three parts and is set to American music of the 20th century. It opens with the music of Cole Porter, moves on to Bruce Springsteen tunes and then wraps up with a toe tapping round of Doo Wop. The Doo Wop piece caries the title “Step Touch” and was choreographed by Dwight Rhoden who says he tried to bring into the dance the steps done by the singers and the kids who were dancing to the tunes in the 50’s. Dancer Eva Trapp says despite the modern music this is not modern dance. She says ballet fans will still see the classic moves but new comers will also love the music and the movement. Listen to a longer audio version of this story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Criminal Neglect Bill Passes State House

A bill proposed by State Representative Don Walko has passed the House with a vote of 195-0. The legislation would allow for criminal charges of neglect to be brought against the owners or staff of any personal care home with three or fewer residents. Currently state law only allows for such charges to be brought against personal care homes with 4 or more patients. The bill passed the House last year with 196 votes in the positive and none in the negative but was unable to pass the Senate because the session ended before it could be voted on. Walko has pushed for this bill because of the death of a neglected personal care patient who died in 1996. Goldie Scherlacher was in an unregulated personal care home in Allegheny County and lost 36 pounds in the month that she resided there. Because the care home was unregulated neglect charges were unable to be brought against the owners of the home.

Tom Corbett To Run For Governor

State Attorney General Tom Corbett has filed the paperwork needed to form an exploratory committee to run for governor in 2010. By forming an exploratory committee, Corbett can raise money, gauge support in the party and the community and begin organizing his campaign. Corbett has served as attorney general since 2004 and was re-elected last year. He is now one of three Republican candidates who have filed paperwork for exploratory committees. United States Representative Jim Gerlach and Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan formed their committees last month. Corbett said he decided to run after hearing large amounts of grass roots support and doesn't see a problem in transitioning from a law enforcement position to the office of governor.

State Representative Looking For Tax on Policeless Communities

Communities who have disbanded their police forces and now rely on the state police to patrol their neighborhoods may soon face a $100 per person tax to support the state police. State Representative John Pallone of Westmoreland County has introduced a bill that would require any community of over 10,000 people who rely on the State Police for law enforcement to pay a $100 per resident tax. Pallone said that the increase in communities disbanding their police forces in favor of State Police patrol has stretched the resources of the State Police. He says either a community of over 10,000 people can create their own police force, create a regional police force with neighboring communities or contribute the tax to aid the State Police in their patrolling efforts. As currently written the legislation, if passed, would affect 21 communities and bring in $35-$40 million in revenues. Pallone has introduced similar legislation in the past and is remaining cautiously optimistic that it will pass this year because of the Governor's stated concerns over public safety.

Pittsburgh Council Considers "Buy America" Resolution

Members of the United Steelworkers of America today urged Pittsburgh City Council to adopt a resolution supporting the enforcement of the "Buy America" provision in the federal economic stimulus package approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama. USWA District 10 Director John DeFazio told council that the "buy America" provisions can create and retain good-paying jobs in Pittsburgh and in the nation. Steelworker Maria Soma told Council that the resolution will help the future of Pittsburgh. Chris Masciantonio is the general manager of government affairs for U.S. Steel. He says this is not about restricting imports, it's about using taxpayer dollars to purchase U.S.-produced goods and revitalizing the manufacturing base. The "Buy America" resolution has been introduced in more than 500 municipalities and states.

Larrimor's Moves To PNC Building Downtown

The lease is up for the Larrimor's store at the Union Trust Building. Rather than renewing, the company is making what they call the "competitive" move by setting up shop in the PNC building downtown -- the number one suite, as a matter of fact. PNC will move their offices to the third suite. Larrimor's President Tom Michael says the low rent and appropriate business climate of the new location are reason enough for the decision. "You don't stay in business for 70 years by acting on emotion. You act on good, sound business judgment, and that's what we've done here," says Michael. He says the presence of the Fairmont Hotel nearby might attract more customers. The president added he hopes Pittsburghers realize that the store will not be going out of business now or in the near future. The new location will be ready to shop in by February of 2010.

Pittsburgh City Council Says No To Porch Couches

Pittsburgh City Council has approved legislation that bans couches, mattresses, box springs, sofas, and upholstered chairs from non-enclosed porches. The bill was authored by Councilman Bruce Kraus and received the full support of council. Members of council were motivated to pass the legislation because of the burning of couches that occurs in Oakland after street festivals and sports victories. Councilman Bill Peduto says he doesn't expect building inspectors to go looking for outdoor couches but expects them to respond to complaints. The penalty for keeping a couch on a non-enclosed porch will be $200-$500 a day plus court costs. The law now goes to the Mayors office, where he has two weeks to veto it.

Citizens Asked To Help Pittsburgh Go Green

Working to reduce global warming, environmental group PennFuture announced today a first of its kind attempt to run a citywide citizen action campaign. Working in collaboration with various community groups and local governmental offices "The Black and Gold City Goes Green" program is trying to involve every Pittsburgher in reducing global warming. PennFuture's Western Pennsylvania Outreach coordinator Joylette Portlock says each month the program will ask citizens to engage in a simple action that will reduce their impact on the environment. She says the recommendation for March is simple, change a light bulb from an incandescent to a fluorescent. Other recommendations that will be given each month include buying locally grown food, adjusting the thermostat, using reusable shopping bags and buying recycled products. The program hopes to see a measurable decrease in heat trapping gases by January 2010

Dan Rooney Named Ambassador to Ireland

The owner of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers has been named U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. Dan Rooney has been involved with Irish peace efforts since the 1970s. He co-founded the American Ireland Fund, which raises money for peace and education programs. That group just honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Rooney takes the ambassadorship at a difficult time, with the economic slump hitting Ireland particularly hard, and the recent killings of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland. Rooney might not seem like an obvious choice for the White House. The 76-year-old has been a lifelong Republican. But he endorsed President Barack Obama in the hard-fought Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, and campaigned for him.

Supporters Fight to Restore Funds for School for Deaf

Lawmakers are vowing to save the Scranton State School for the Deaf (SSSD), and a grassroots effort to win back funding has taken shape.
But the Rendell Administration insists eliminating 7.3 million dollars for the institution is the right thing to do.
In the days after Governor Rendell announced the suggested closure of the school, advocates put together a website-www.sssdsos.org. One of the group's organizers is Melodie Newhardt Kirk, whose daughter attends the institution. Kirk says they've collected 34-thousand signatures, and aren't done yet.

"We have gone to the parents' association. We have gone to the students, the family members, to write letters to legislators. I took petitions to my employment, I've had parents take petitions everywhere you go."

Rendell's budget cuts 7.3 million dollars in funding, but allocates 5.5 million to help students transition and find educational alternatives.
Scranton Democratic State Representative Kevin Murphy suggests using that money to run the school for one more year, while a study determines whether closing SSSD is the best decision.
But Department of Education spokesman Michael Race says the state simply shouldn't be footing the bill for the operation when better alternatives exist.

PA Transportation Projects Outlined

Pennsylvania transportation officials have finalized the list of infrastructure projects the state's $1.03 billion stimulus grant will fund.
The projects range in price from 66 million dollars to restore Philadelphia's Girard Point bridge to a 40-thousand dollar effort to repair a span crossing a creek in Liberty Township, Tioga County. In all, 399 bridges and 608 miles of road will be repaired, repaved or upgraded with stimulus funding. Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler says it's going to be a busy construction season...

"The deadline that's set in the program is to make sure that we've got the work started within 12 months. Our intent is to get that work started in approximately six months so we can really charge the economy. Our intent is frankly to beat those deadlines significantly."

Biehler says the projects will create thousands of construction jobs, citing a federal formula crediting every billion dollars of infrastructure spending with the generation of 30-thousand jobs.
State transportation officials worked with regional planning organizations to select the final projects. In Allegheny County, 46 million dollars will be spent on Route 28 in Pittsburgh and Millvale to prepare the road for a widening project. $30.5 million will go toward repairs on the Ft. Duquesne Bridge.
Biehler says he hopes that every project will be completed by 2010. A quarter of the funding goes toward projects in southwestern Pennsylvania, another quarter to the southeastern region, and the other half to the remainder of the state.

Fumo Guilty

A federal judge has set bail at $2 million dollars for former state Senator Vincent Fumo. A jury convicted the Democrat of 137 counts of fraud and obstruction of justice Monday. It took 5 weeks to present the testimony and just more than 5 days for the jury to come to a decision. Jurors say the evidence against Fumo was overwhelming, and his own testimony hurt his case. Juror Myrna DeVoren, from Havertown, said Fumo got carried away by money and power. "Here's a man, thirty years as a Senator, he started out doing good for people in my opinion and then somewhere he crossed the line. I'm not sure with money and power, I'm not sure why people cross that line." Said DeVoren. Former U-S attorney Patrick Meehan says he hopes the conviction will generate reform at the state capitol. He said, “Hopefully this is a peak inside the Harrisburg capital dome. It will shed some light on the ways the office was able to be abused. The lack of scrutiny on the way dollars were being spent.” A hearing later this week will determine what property Fumo may have to forfeit.

Trooper Linked to South Side Death, Involved in Previous Killing

A state trooper that helped shoot and kill a man driving dangerously on South Side early Sunday morning was also involved in the killing of an unarmed 12-year-old boy in 2002. Trooper Samuel Nassan fatally shot Nicholas Haniotakis, 33, of the South Side after he tried to run over officers with his SUV. He had been charged in the past with trying to run down an officer.

Haniotakis was spotted driving erratically on the South Side around 2 a.m. on March 15 by Nassan and Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly who were on DUI patrol. Haniotakis refused to pull over and eventually crashed. The officers ordered him out of the car, but instead Hanitokas reversed his vehicle, hitting their unmarked police vehicle. The two officers fired on Hanitokas who then drove another six blocks before crashing into a utility pole at 22nd and Sarah Streets.

In December 2002 Nassan shot Michael Ellerbe in the back in Uniontown during a foot chase after Ellerbe jumped out of a stolen vehicle. Nassan said he thought Ellerbe had shot his partner, whose gun went off accidentally while he climbed a fence.

The shooting was ruled justified by law enforcement authorities. But last year a federal jury found that the troopers intentionally shot the boy and awarded the family $28 million. The state later agreed to a $12.5 million payment.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Parents, Environmentalists Want Buses Retrofitted

Parents and environmental groups are calling on the Pittsburgh School Board to protect students by reducing emissions from diesel school buses. Members of the Healthy School Bus Campaign tonight are expected to urge School Board members to adopt a policy that would require all school buses in the Pittsburgh School District to be retrofitted for diesel emissions. Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), says that dangerous diesel particulates can concentrate inside the bus at 5 to 10 times the rate outside the bus. Filippini says that means the focus can't be just on the tailpipe, but also on the engine so that the particulates are sent out the tailpipe. Filippini says that bus emissions are particularly harmful to children because their lungs are not fully mature and are more sensitive to pollution. She says they know that having all school buses retrofitted "will not happen overnight," but should be addressed by the school district when contracts come due with the school bus companies.
One transportation company, W.L. Roenigk, is taking advantage of the Healthy Bus Fund to pay for the retrofitting of 50 of its buses. Filippini says there's enough money in that fund to retrofit another 20 buses. Companies that use the money have to pay $300 to $500 per bus annually to have the filters cleaned.
The Allegheny County Health Department has offered a similar program for 2 years following a pilot project with the Penn Hills School District. But since then, only the Deer Lakes School District participated in that program to get 10 buses retrofitted. The Health Department's program requires districts to pick up 25% of the cost.

Effects of Discrimination on Health is Topic of Lecture

The effects of discrimination on one's health was the topic of a lecture at Pitt's Center on Race and Social Problems today by a professor from the University of Washington who conducted the first ever national study of discrimination as experienced by Asians and Latinos in this country, both native-born and immigrants.

Professor David Takeuchi says respondents answered questions about courtesy and respect, whether they received poor service, were treated as though they were dishonest, were insulted or called names, were threatened or harassed. 75% of Asians and 55% of Latinos born in the U.S. said they were treated with less courtesy. On all the questions, a lesser percentage of immigrants in both groups reported discrimination. Takeuchi says this may be because immigrants tend to live among large concentrations of their particular groups and have less contact with those in other groups.

The study shows perceptions of discrimination have profound effects on mental health outcomes, such as major depression. Takeuchi says discrimination is also linked to poor physical health in Asians and Latinos, whether they are born here or not.

Allegheny Energy in Battle Over Water Discharges

Cleaning the air shouldn't come at the expense of clean water, says an environmental law firm. Earthjustice is trying to stop Allegheny Energy from discharging pollutants into the Monongahela River at levels higher than those approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Allegheny Energy is installing scrubbers at its Hatfield's Ferry plant in Greene County to reduce air pollution. But using those scrubbers creates a sludge. Allegheny Energy says it plans to treat the sludge, but the levels of pollutants it would discharge into the river would still surpass limits set by the DEP.

Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen says other plants around the country have installed "zero discharge" systems, and Allegheny Energy should do the same. Otherwise, she says levels of harmful toxins like mercury, cadmium and lead will increase in a waterway that serves as a drinking water source for thousands of people.

Allegheny Energy spokesman David Neurohr says the utility can't build a zero discharge system in time to meet newer state and federal air pollution regulations. He also says the water discharge levels the utility sought in its permit were "traditional" for an industrial facility on the Mon. Neurohr suspects that the DEP imposed stricter limits because that section of the river had lower-than-normal flows last fall, resulting in pollutant levels that were higher than usual. Normal flow levels have since returned.

City School Board gets graded

The Pittsburgh School Board earned a C+ by an A Plus Schools program called "Board Watch". Five primary factors resulted in the board's grade, which were focus and mission, accessibility, conduct, clarity and competency. These grades were provided by Board Watch respondents, who have been trained in good governance and policies. So far, there are 38 volunteers that have attended various board meetings from November 2008 to February 2009. After going to a meeting, each respondent evaluated the meeting in a survey that contributed to the grades.

A Plus Schools Executive Director Carey Harris says public accessibility in particular needs to be improved. They are simple tasks, however she says they will result in having a better informed community and improving student achievement in the long run.

- 45 percent of respondents could easily get into the building and find the meeting location
- 38 percent felt welcomed at the meeting
- 97 percent were able to get an agenda, but 50 percent of those who received the agenda had trouble understanding the information it contained

Harris says there will be regular report cards based on Board Watch reports. Board Watch is an effort that was officially announced by A Plus Schools in January.