Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Council Gets Bike/Ped Update

A long list of transportation experts gathered in Pittsburgh City Council chambers today in an effort to look at what the future holds for bikers and pedestrians. Councilman Patrick Dowd called the post agenda meeting and opened by saying that when he moved to Pittsburgh 20 years ago he scrapped his bike because he could not safely navigate the city. He says over the years, that has slowly changed and he now wants to look to the future. Pittsburgh Public Works Dept. Assistant Direct Pat Hassett says ten years ago the focus was on developing riverfront and other biking and hiking trails. He says now it is all about bike lanes and better intersections. But it is not easy, “It all boils down to two things, one is real estate. All the on-road real estate is allocated now. We have to talk about how we reassign that real estate. But it’s also about safety. We cannot be looking at that reassignment without taking a serious look at how safe we are keeping all travelers.” In recent years more bike lanes have popped up throughout the city including one on Forbes Ave heading away from the CMU campus.

Ideas such as opening the busways to bike traffic were discussed and discarded during the meeting. A PAT official noted that the busways were often too narrow for a bike lane, the tight curves at times limit sight distances, bus stops pose difficulties and the speed of the buses make for dangerous conditions. Bike Pittsburgh Executive Director Scott Bricker was quick to note that no official study had been made to determine just how much it would take to make the busway safe for bike travel. Councilman Bill Peduto called on better cooperation among the city, the county and municipalities. He says to get the work done it is going to take funding and cooperation from outside of the city limits. An update of the Bike/Pedestrian master plan drafted in 1999 is in the works and is expected to be published by the city within the year.

Others around the table pointed to a need to better track pedestrian and bike accidents in the city. The police department says new computerized incident tracking will help. There was also a call for better education of all parties on how to share the road and how to keep safe. Police Commander Scott Schubert says in Oakland most of the accidents come as students and hospital workers cross in the middle of the road. “The education needs to go to the people who work in hospitals and students saying here’s (sic) cross walks, use them,” says Schubert. Council President Darleen Harris noted that there are some bikers that become a nuisance. Schubert says if bicyclists want parity with cars they need to follow the same laws. At the same time he noted that drivers need to be more attentive to bike riders. Bricker says there are efforts under way to educate both riders and drivers on how to share the road. He quoted an un-named study that found that bike/car accidents are 40-percent less likely to happen on roads with bike lanes.

Phase 2 of Hilton Renovation to Proceed

The second stage of the major renovation of the Hilton Pittsburgh moves into full gear the day after Labor Day. Phase 1 included a $30 million interior renovation that included the gutting of every floor and the updating of all 712 rooms. In addition, the renovation of first floor lobby was recently completed.
Frank Amedia is the asset manager of the Hilton Pittsburgh. He says they are now focusing on the exterior of the building..."The steel will start going up, concrete will start to pour. It's our goal to get the perimeter closed in before the holidays, and then to continue to work through to the spring on the inside."
He says the exterior's appearance will be transformed..."It starts on the end of the building and comes up like a wave for the 3 Rivers theme. It's going to quite an attraction as you come through the tunnel and across. It's going to be something that's blended into the iconic nature and personality of the hotel but yet contemporary enough to pick up the 21st century."
The full renovation could be completed by June.
Amedia says there are 2 main reasons why the renovations have taken more than 2 years: the age (built in 1958) and size of the hotel (712 guest rooms); and the economy.
Amedia says the hotel industry is not in a recession, "it's in a depression."
However, work on the hotel stopped in May 2009 when contractor P.J. Dick walked out after not being paid.
He says the owners, Shubh Hotels, brought on a new management team last week, Prism Hotels, which has taken over 40 hotels since January...."they seem to be better tuned for this site as it pertains to the Hilton brand standards and to the aggressive schedule we're keeping right now."
Shubh fired Virginia-based Crescent Hotels as manager of the Hilton Pittsburgh after filing a court battle with Shubh's lender, Blackrock, Inc. with Shubh and Blackrock each claiming the other side defaulted on loan terms.
Common Pleas Judge Michael Della Vecchia ordered Blackrock to release $500,000 in escrow funds to pay sales, county and drink taxes. Blackrock also withdrew its demand for an immediate repayment of the $49.5 million loan.

Port Authority Cuts Comment Period Draws to Close

The 30-day window for the public to weigh in on proposed fare hikes and service reductions ends today at 4 p.m. The Port Authority of Allegheny County is facing a massive funding shortfall both due to the failure to toll Interstate 80 – a key component of Act 44 – and to come up with a resolution in Harrisburg over the summer. More than a thousand riders, business owners and community leaders have given input on the changes. Without an intervention fares in Zones 1 and 2 and the price of passes and tickets will go up January 1, as well as a premium charge for light rail service and 13 express routes. On January 9 service hours will be reduced by 35%, reducing the number of routes from 129 to 85. At least 500 Port Authority jobs will be eliminated and about 90 neighborhoods throughout the Authority's coverage area will be without service or see service loss. Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie says the comments collected so far reflect a mixed understanding of the agency's issues. "We hear people pointing the finger at us, clearly, for decisions we've made in the past and telling us it's our fault their lives will be impacted this way, and other people do understand it's a statewide funding issue that effects other agencies beyond the Port Authority." Ritchie says they're reviewing all of the comments and will use them to inform their January service proposal. Many people have asked if there's any way to stop the cut backs from taking effect and Ritchie says it's being discussed in Harrisburg and they're doing their best to make their voice heard as an agency – "and hopefully somebody does have a resolution that would come in time to prevent such deep cuts in our system." The Authority's Board of Directors will consider final approval of the proposed changes at its September 24 meeting.

Legality of Oil Profits Tax Debated

Critics say a centerpiece of Governor Ed Rendell’s plan to generate new funding for transportation projects violates both the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions.
Rendell wants to tax oil companies’ profits, but legally prohibit the corporations from increasing prices at Pennsylvania’s gas stations in order to pay the levy.
Rolf Hanson, the executive director of Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania, opposes the tax.
He says the legislation violates the Constitution, by indirectly raising prices on consumers in other states.

"Since it could not be passed on to Pennsylvanians, it would be passed on to New Yorkers, or people from New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, etc. So the legality of Pennsylvania enacting a tax that citizens in other states have to pay for does not pass legal muster of interstate commerce."

A 2007 legal memo solicited by the Senate Republican Caucus backs Hanson’s claim.
It also questions whether the tax would violate language in the state’s constitution which says gas tax revenue can only be used to repair transportation infrastructure, and not mass transit.
Wisconsin’s Democratic governor pushed for a similar measure in recent years, but the state legislature killed the proposal.
Rendell says other states have successfully implemented the tax, but his administration hasn’t provided any information on where those laws have gone into effect.
Rendell has said he’s confident the bill would win any legal challenge.

Century Mountain Project

Huang Xiang is one of the greatest poets of 20th century China. He was persecuted and imprisoned in his homeland and found refuge in Pittsburgh as the first writer-in-residence at City of Asylum Pittsburgh. William Rock is a painter and sculptor who has always seen art as an opportunity for dialogue.

Together they have created “The Century Mountain Project”…..combining portraits by William Rock and poetry/calligraphy by Huang Xiang , this is a celebration of “people who have stood out like mountains through the centuries.”

Century Mountain: Expanding Borders, Exploring Humanity will be on exhibition at Robert Morris University’s Pittsburgh Center 600 Fifth Ave. downtown from Sept. 9 through Oct. 14. An opening reception, with the artists, will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 9.

Listen to a longer version of this story here.

Photo courtesy of The Century Mountain Project

Monday, August 30, 2010

Panther Hollow Watershed Restoration

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has received a $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation...half of which will go towards restoring the Panther Hollow Watershed in Pittsburgh. The
The Panther Hollow Watershed is an area of land bounded by high points in which all of the water drains to the Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park.

Restoration Ecologist Erin Copeland says storm water runoff has caused most of the damage to the Panther Hollow Watershed. She says a forest or wooded area helps absorb and recharge ground water so that it can run smoothly into streams and lakes. However, heavy rainfall and impervious surfaces have caused storm water to rush over land, through pipes and over roads, which in turn causes damage to streams and lakes.

Copeland says restoring the watershed is more complex than just restoring the lake. “If we were to just dredge the lake, then we wouldn’t really fix the problem.” She says the problem begins with the watershed. “You need to work in the upper parts of the watershed first where you’ll have to slow down water and infiltrate it so that as you work down through the watershed.” She says the lake is the end of the watershed and should be restored last.

Copeland says the Conservancy will work with a qualified firm, the city of Pittsburgh and the Department of Public Works to define and achieve a watershed-related goal. She says they’ll be testing management techniques and reducing the negative effects of storm water runoff into Panther Hollow Lake. “Hopefully as a result of this we’re going to be really improving the watershed knowledge of residents that are close to the park.”

On September 15, the conservancy will hold a “What’s in Panther Hollow?” lecture for the general public to cover the ongoing efforts for the restoration of the watershed.

Blue Green


As part of a nationwide “Blue Green Alliance” tour, a bus full of union members and environmentalists stopped at the United Steel Workers building this morning to urge Senate action on comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation they say could create up to 78,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone

Fred Redmond, Vice President of United Steel Workers International says countries like China are taking the lead in green energy and in the new jobs created, yet the Senate went on vacation without passing the comprehensive climate change legislation necessary to jump start the clean energy economy. The House passed a comprehensive bill last year; Redmond is calling on the Senate to take action now so that the green energy jobs created will be good American union jobs.

Redmond says it is estimated the legislation will create over 1.9 million jobs and whole new industries, while making the United States the global leader in green energy technology.

Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action says “The Job’s Not Done” bus tour calling for clean energy legislation reflects Americans’ needs for a healthy environment and jobs for everyone.

Leon Weeks, a United Steel Workers local vice president from Michigan says jobs will only be saved and created if climate change legislation passes, making green energy competitive. He urges everyone to let senators know it’s important to take action.

Blow Out at Hydro Dam Kills Trout

An electrical glitch at the hydro-electric dam near Confluence killed nearly 1,200 trout last week. About 500 survived. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Jeff Hawk says the power went out around 4 A.M. Thursday. Workers at the plant arrived a few hours later and fixed the outage and it wasn't until late afternoon on Friday that a fisherman noticed dead fish in the pens owned by Trout Unlimited and notified the Corps. Hawk says the two devices at the plant failed: one was a blower that provides atmospheric air to the pens and one was a pure oxygen injector. Hawk says the fish died from a lack of oxygen and that their deaths were a delayed reaction and occurred after both devices had been restored. He says the hydro-power plant operator, the Chestnut Ridge chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Corps are working to create dedicated lines for the two devices, so that if one fails, the other will continue to operate. Trout Unlimited provides the trout that populates the Youghiogheny River.

Pennsylvania Judiciary Launches Interactive Access to Court Information

Since last week, a new feature on the Pennsylvania Judiciary website has a new web feature that makes it easier for people to interact with the Judiciary.

Visitors can access the Public Comments page by clicking on a box on the www.pacourts.us page and report a problem or submit a comment and receive a response from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. People can still fax or mail in their concerns and expect a response.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said they will honor all requests for confidentiality with the exception of requests that are referred to other agencies.

Steve Schell, Communications Coordinator for The Administrative Offices of Pennsylvania Courts says many of the requests that people have are for legal services. The Pennsylvania Judiciary does not provide legal services but makes referrals.

AAA: More to Travel Over Labor Day

AAA is forecasting more travelers on the roads and in the air this Labor Day than during last year’s holiday.

Nationwide, AAA expects 34.4 million people to travel at least 50 miles over Labor Day, up nearly 10% from last year’s 31.3 million.

AAA East Central spokeswoman Bevi Powell says there is “pent-up demand” for a Labor Day jaunt among many Americans, as a down economy caused travel rates to fall last year.

Powell says while job growth is disappointing, factors like gross domestic product and household net worth are recovering. She says that growth is allowing many families to take one last vacation as summer winds down.

However, Powell says some travel costs will be higher this year than last year.

“Airfares are up about 9%, car rentals are up about 7%, hotel rates… three-diamond hotels are up about 6%, and two-diamond is up about 2%,” says Powell.

Cars remain the most popular mode of holiday travel. Of Pennsylvanians, 1.1 million expect to drive while 66,000 anticipate flying.

Westmoreland County Economic Development Summit

Westmoreland Community Action, Smart Growth Partnership, PNC Bank and the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County have arranged an all-day event for Thursday, September 9. It will be the first Annual Community and Economic Development Summit, held in Latrobe on Fraser Purchase Road at Fred Rogers Center, Saint Vincent College from 8:30 – 4:30.
For a registration fee of $20 per person, participants will receive a catered breakfast and lunch. There'll be a number of prominent keynote speakers and participants will listen and discuss various topics.
Westmoreland Community Action’s CEO Tay Waltenbaugh says the company came up with the idea by working with the economic development of different communities.
“When we saw inconsistencies in communities—some very positive things going on, some that needed to be improved, and some education needed to occur—we thought an economic development summit would make a perfect forum for the exchange of ideas, thoughts and different topics.”
Waltenbaugh says speakers will touch upon a wide array of topics such as eminent domain, improving rural policy, asset mapping, land banking, and the new Pennsylvania Conservative Act. “We think it’s important to share as much information as possible that can help a large portion of our county.”
He says the center can hold up to 265 people, and they plan to fill it to its capacity. Attendees will include mayors, councils, redevelopment authorities, planning departments and individuals from Westmoreland and surrounding counties.
Waltenbaugh says this economic development summit will be beneficial to communities. “I think this is the first of its kind, and it’s a way to educate yourself on how you can help neighborhoods, so I think it’s worthwhile.” He says they plan to continue on with the summit for years to come.
To register, visit westmorelandca.org and click "News and Events."

Route 28 Fun Begins

After rush hour today, PennDOT’s multi-year Route 28 project will begin 1300 feet north of the 31st Street Bridge through the 40th Street Bridge interchange. Northbound traffic will be restricted to a single lane through 2014.

During rush hours, there will still be two southbound lanes, although one may be closed when necessary at off hours because construction will actually be occurring on the southbound side of the road. Jim Struzzi, District 11 press officer, says drivers can access real time cameras at the website 511pa.com to see how Route 28 traffic is moving.

An alternate northbound route is to take Butler Street through Lawrenceville to the 40th Street or Highland Park Bridge. PennDOT has constructed improvements at key intersections to facilitate traffic flow.

Struzzi says Route 28 will be a free flowing and much safer road, with median barriers, when the project is completed.

A PowerPoint presentation of the whole project can be found online.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

West Allegheny Teachers Authorize Strike

Teachers unions in four school districts in Allegheny County have now authorized strikes, but no walkouts have been scheduled yet.
Teachers in the West Allegheny School District voted unanimously to give their union leadership the authority to call a strike if necessary. Earlier, teachers in the Allegheny Valley, Bethel Park and Moon Area School Districts authorized strikes. Unions must notify school district officials at least 48 hours in advance of a walkout.

Rendell Campaigning for Marcellus Tax

When state lawmakers approved a new budget for Pennsylvania in early July, there was an agreement to take a vote on a Marcellus Shale gas severance tax by October 1. Governor Ed Rendell is now turning up the heat on the General Assembly to pass the tax by that deadline but there is still disagreement over a tax rate and how the revenues should be divided between the state and local municipalities.
Speaking in Tioga County Friday, the governor said drilling in the Marcellus Shale has the potential of being a tremendous economic boom for the state...
"We need the resources to inspect, monitor and enforce against companies that don't meet our environmental standards, and local governments need the resources to maintain their bridges, respond to emergencies and meet increasing demands for social services."

The governor said he wants the drilling industry to succeed in Pennsylvania...
"Because if they flourish and they make money, they'll be creating jobs and economic development and wealth for Pennsylvanians. I want it to flourish, but I want it to flourish the right way and the right way means a fair and significant and robust severance tax."

The governor notes that Pennsylvania is the only major energy-producing state that does not levy a tax on natural gas extraction.
Rendell has indicated he would like a tax similar to that in West Virginia...4.7 cents per 1,000 cubic feet of gas produces and 5% on the value of gas sold. The governor is hoping for $70 million in revenues to help balance this year's budget.

Friday, August 27, 2010

UPMC to Expand by 500

Most of the 500 positions UPMC plans to add in the coming year will be at UPMC Presbyterian, UPMC Shadyside, and in the insurance division. The move comes as the non-profit announced operating income that jumped 13 percent in the fiscal year ending June 30. The jobs come just a few years after the now 20-hospital network cut a similar number of workers. UPMC Spokesperson Paul Wood says those positions were very different than the ones that will be created. Woods says the system always has about 1,000 job openings as it deals with attrition however he says he does not think they will have any problem filling the new positions. In its latest financial report UPMC reports it generated $8 billion in revenue and netted $240 million in operating income for fiscal 2010. That compares to $212 million in 2009.

City Finds New Way to Delay CPRB Request

Despite saying that it would turn over all the requested documents, the City of Pittsburgh has once again argued that it cannot give the Citizen Police Review Board what it wants. The board has asked for arrest reports and other documents related to police staffing and assignments during the G20 Summit in September of 2009. The board says it needs the documents to do its job. The city has argued alternately in the past that the data would put national security at risk, that it would jeopardize its efforts to defend itself against litigation, and that the board is not entitled to the documents without a specific citizen complaint being filed. It turned over heavily redacted documents in May and last month said all documents would be forthcoming. Yesterday, the city went before Judge R. Stanton Wettick and argued that it could not hand over the documents due to state laws prohibiting the CPRB from seeing the information. CPRB attorney Hugh McGough says the city does not fall under the Criminal History Record Information Act because it operates under a home rule charter. In fact, he notes that the city’s solicitor under Mayor Tom Murphy specifically laid out tight privacy rules and procedures that should be used in freely handing over the documents. In past investigations the city has made the non-redacted document available to the CPRB without question. Judge Wettick has not set a time line for making a ruling on the city’s latest argument, but McGough points out that the judge took ten days to rule in the last instance.

Groups Call on EPA to Regulate Coal Ash

Several environmental organizations have joined forces less than a week before the Environmental Protection Agency launches a series of hearings on coal ash, to call for tight federal regulations. Right now the EPA sets up guidelines for the retention ponds and acceptable levels of materials in drinking water but leaves enforcement to states. The groups released a report today that finds in many cases states know toxins are spreading out of the ponds but are not doing anything about it. In other cases they say states wont even monitor the ponds. Those are among the reasons why the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project say the federal government needs to step in with enforcement. The study looks at 39 sites as case studies including FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant’s Little Blue Run Surface Impoundment in Beaver County and Allegheny Energy Supply Company’s Hatfield’s Ferry Power station in Greene County. Arsenic, Aluminum, Barium and Cadmium were among the chemicals and elements found in wells or surface waters near those coal ash ponds. Researcher Russell Boulding says he looked at ground water contamination at two plants where the power company has on-site wells. He says those wells were being used to supply drinking water to employees and although he did not test the water he believes they were contaminated based on test done to other wells in the area. “Unless they are doing some pretty fancy treatment of the ground water they are poising workers at the plant,” says Boulding. The groups are calling for the EPA to set liner standards for the ponds, monitoring protocols and clean up requirements.

The full report can be found here
.

The first EPA hearing comes Monday in Washington DC followed by 6 more around the country including one September 21st in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Table Games Generate $2,455,508 for PA in First Month

The first numbers on the launch of table games at Pennsylvania casinos have been released and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh is topping the list. In the first 24 days (7/8 – 7/31) of operations the casino had gross revenues on 85 tables of $3,052,531. That resulted in $427,354 in state tax and $61,051 in local tax being collected. Of the nine casinos operating table games in July that was the highest take from the third highest number of tables. Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack had the most tables at 99 but had fewer days of operation. The Medows Racetrack and Casino grossed $1,911,064 from 62 tables over the same 24 days. Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Executive Director Kevin O'Toole says, "While the implementation of table games created a significant patron traffic increase in July, it is too early to draw any conclusions on these numbers or the effect of table games on slot machine gaming."

Toomey, Corbett Lead in Latest Poll

There are still a lot of undecided voters when it comes to the U.S. Senate and governor's races in Pennsylvania. A new poll from Franklin and Marshall College released today shows Republican Pat Toomey with a 40% to 31% lead over Democrat Joe Sestak in the Senate race. Still 26% of voters don't know which candidate they like better with about 9 weeks remaining till the November 2 general election. Pollster Terry Madonna says to catch up with Toomey in the frequency of TV ads.

The survey also shows Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett with a 38% to 27% lead over Democrat Dan Onorato. 4% of those polled said they would vote for someone else, but 31% are still undecided. Madonna believes that Onorato could be hurt by Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell's job performance rating of only 30%.
A potentially bad indicator for both Sestak and Onorato: at the moment Democrats are less likely to vote than Republicans. Only 37% of Democrats said they are likely to vote in November compared to 45% of Republicans.

New Children's Hospital Study

A new study published in the September issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation says Vitamin D might be used to treat and prevent severe allergic response to Aspergillus Fumigatus, a common airborne mold. While the mold does not cause serious symptoms in the majority of people who inhale it, for people with cystic fibrosis, it can cause a severe allergic response.

The research team was led by Dr. Jay Kolls, a lung disease researcher at Children's Hospital who works at Louisiana State University. They studied patients who had infections and had developed severe allergies and some who had not. Vitamin D helped those who had cystic fibrosis.

Kolls says this research might make treating the allergies a lot easier than with the strong medications commonly prescribed.

The researchers are now moving into clinical trials. This new research add to previous evidence that vitamin D may play a critical role on immune responses and allergic diseases.

Pittsburgh Schools Reconfiguration Okayed

The Pittsburgh school district Excel reconfiguration plan has the final approval of the school board. Superintendent Mark Roosevelt says implementation of the reforms will enable the district to transform some of the most underperforming high schools into schools that advance student achievement. Most of the changes will begin with the start of the 2011-12 school year. The Board approved the closing of Peabody High School effective June 2011. Students from the International Studies Obama 6-12 School will relocate to the Peabody building starting with the 2012 school year. Two 6-12 single gender academies will open in the Westinghouse building in Homewood next year. Peabody students may choose to attend either the single gender academies at Westinghouse or Milliones University Prep in the Hill District. Oliver high school will be reconfigured as an early college model program. The Homewood Early Childhood Center will move to the Crescent facility. The reconfiguration vote was 8-0 with Mark Brentley abstaining.

The Excel program was first introduced in 2006 as a five-year roadmap for improving the academic performance of all high school students in the Pittsburgh Public schools. But one of the components is a Teacher Academy. Yesterday's school board vote also approved the academy to be based at Brashear High School and King Pre-K-8. Over the past three years many aspects of the plan have been launched. District officials say the implementation of the next phase of the Excell plan will allow city schools to meet requirements of the U.S. Department of Education's requirements for federal and state allocations.

The board also approved an evaluation of Superintendent Roosevelt's performance and gave him a $15,000 raise to $240,000 annually.

Free Marcellus Leasing Workshops Offered

CCAC has teamed up with a land brokerage firm to offer a series of free workshops on Marcellus Shale Drilling at the school’s Washington County facility. CCAC Director of Community Education M. J. Mandler says people in Washington County are starting to sign leases and now is the time to become educated on the subject “before it is too late.” “This is only going to get bigger,” says Mandler, “information is power and they should go into this knowing exactly what the are going to get into.” The free workshops begin September 11th and then run each of the next three Saturdays from 9:30am-11:30am. Mandler says they have limited space so participants are asked to preregister at CCAC.edu or by calling 412-369-3703 M-F 9a-3p. The workshops will be conducted by Terra Energy Advisors, which bills itself as an “oil and gas investment and management company” that “assists property owners to become educated on the process of fully developing their mineral rights and obtaining the maximum income for leasing their land.” Mandler says the workshops will address a long list of topics including; how shale drilling works, water and environmental issues associated with shale drilling and understanding the contracts involved in gas extraction.

Change in Gender ID Policy

PennDOT has changed its policy on how transgender people identify themselves on their driver's licenses. Transportation Department spokesman Craig Yetter says the agency and Equality Pennsylvania reached an agreement...
"Equality advocates approached the department and brought the policy change for passports to our attention and let us know there were 26 other states and the District of Columbia that had similar policies in place and then PennDOT took action to change the policy."
The U.S. Department of State in June implemented a change in policy regarding the gender markings on passports.
Under PennDOT's old policy, to change the gender on their licenses or state ID cards, people had to prove they had sexual reassignment surgery. The new policy that is effective immediately doesn't require proof of surgery. It does allow a change in gender on the licenses if people are living full-time in the new gender and it is verified by a licensed medical or psychological caregiver or social worker "whose practice includes helping people with gender identity issues."
Yetter says that can be done online at Department of Motor Vehicles website.

Library Turns to Public for Funding Ideas


The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened its doors 115 years ago. Today—like many libraries around the country—it’s facing a deficit. DUQ’s Larkin Page-Jacobs reports the organization is turning to its patrons to help drum up solutions.

Click here to listen to the story.

PA Campaign Finance Bill Sits in Committee

A measure that would limit campaign contributions in Pennsylvania to what one local lawmaker says are “reasonable” levels, has stalled in committee. State Senator Jay Costa of Forest Hills is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1269 that imposes limits on what political action committees and individuals can contribute to a candidate. It also caps total contributions that a candidate can accept. The limits are as follows---
 In-kind contributions would be limited to $500 per individual for candidates for the offices of state senator, representative, common pleas court, county or local offices.
 A $2,400 limit would be established for statewide offices and a $5,000 limit would be placed on contributions from a single political action committee, or candidate committee, including contributions from a political party committee to a political action committee.
 Total contributions would be capped at $100,000 from all political party committees for the offices of state senator or representative, local judges, or county and local offices.
 A $250,000 limit would be imposed for statewide offices.
 No individual would be allowed to make contributions exceeding $25,000 within a calendar year, while political action committees would be limited to $100,000 annually.
 No person with a fiduciary contract for services with the General Assembly may engage in campaign finance activity for a candidate of the General Assembly.
 Any business awarded a contract or grants of more than $50,000 from the commonwealth during the preceding two year period shall report by February 15th of each year a list of the contracts, description of services, and an itemized list of all political contributions made by every office, director, associate, partner, limited partner, or owner of the business.
 All candidates must fulfill all their filing and disclosure requirements from prior campaign activity before they can obtain a place on a new ballot.
 Reports by political action committees and candidates shall include the specific occupation of individuals making contributions in excess of $100.
Costa says the bill has bipartisan support and he hopes it will move out of committee and onto the floor by the end of the year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Foundations' Merger Moving Forward

The consolidation of the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County (CFWC) has moved a step forward. The proposal has been approved by Orphans Court and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office. The Community Foundation will become part of the Pittsburgh Foundation but operate under its own name with its own staff. Officials say the intent is to strengthen the grantmaking impact of CFWC, enhance services for donors and increase support for non-profits.

Grant Oliphant, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation says these are exciting and innovative times for philanthropy in the region....
“Our merger also represents something of an historic initiative for the charitable sector nationally. Our guiding principals are to constantly seek to be better at what we do and the resources we provide, for our donors, our nonprofits and those who depend on them for support. This merger is an example of that.”

The Richard King Mellon Foundation has contributed $400,000 to the effort....half to go to defray merger costs and the other half to increase grantmaking to non-profits in Westmoreland County.

“We are delighted to support this exciting venture which has the real potential to elevate substantially CFWC’s presence in serving as a key agent for positive transformation in the Westmoreland community,” said Scott Izzo, Director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “CFWC will benefit greatly from The Pittsburgh Foundation’s expertise, experience and considerable strength in further developing its fundraising activities and maximizing its grantmaking impact in the Westmoreland region.”

The merger process is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Should County Prisoners Go to Work?

Allegheny County Council is considering a bill that would put non-violent prisoners to work outside the County Jail. Council Vice President Charles Martoni from District 8, a co-sponsor, says it’s a complex issue that could be constructive and positive both for the county and for the prisoners eligible to work, but care must be taken not to encroach on jobs that county employees should be doing and to use only those prisoners who would not be dangerous—people who are in jail for DUI offenses, for example.

He says Council should proceed slowly before voting on the measure. He would like to study other such programs around the country to see how they've been implemented and whether they've been successful.

Martoni says the community and the country need all citizens to be productive, and he believes there are some prisoners who could be.

Carnegie Museum Property Eyed for Drilling

Natural gas companies are interested in drilling on land that belongs to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Westmoreland County. Carnegie Spokeswoman Betsy Momich says they've received inquiries from several companies about drilling at the 2,200-acre Powdermill Nature Reserve. She says the museum's trustees are studying the proposals but are a long way from making a final decision. Momich says environmental impact is at the top list of concerns and the revenue from drilling is also a factor. The museum uses the nature reserve in Cook Township as a research field station where scientists study changes in the environment and wildlife populations.

Local Union Rallies for Clean Coal

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 154, who build and maintain coal-fired power plants, held a rally during morning rush hour near their offices on Banksville Road to raise awareness for clean coal technology.

President Barack Obama called for "rapid commercial development and deployment of clean coal technologies" in a presidential memorandum on February 3, 2010, and the Department of Energy is investing billions to study and implement such technologies. Earlier this month, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu awarded $1 Billion for the world's first coal-fueled, near-zero emissions power plant to be built in Illinois.

But Raymond Ventrone, the Boilermakers' business manager, says although organized labor put the Obama administration into office, Vice President Joe Biden failed to mention coal at the National Building Trades Conference in April, which made Ventrone question the administration's commitment to coal, which he says is so important in Pennsylvania.

Ventrone says almost 1,000 members at this morning's rally got their message out, but if they don't get the reaction they're looking for, they'll take their concerns to Washington.

Comparing Your Municipality’s Spending to Your Neighbor

The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy is in the process of posting budget data for every municipality in the Allegheny County to help residents better understand what their elected leaders are doing and to help the politicians better understand what their counterparts next door are doing. The Institute hopes to have all the data on its website by Labor Day. The impetus for the report came from two fronts. First, researcher Frank Gamrat says the Institute has done a number of studies comparing Pittsburgh to other benchmark cities but it has never compared the municipalities in the county. Second, Gamrat says he took a phone call from a local elected official who wanted to know how his municipality’s spending on a certain line item stacked up to others in the area and Gamarat says he was embarrassed that he had no answer. The report looks at spending on items such as public safety, roads, and debt service and then compares one municipality to the next on a per capita basis. It also looks at taxation. Gamrat says the goal is not to pick on or praise any municipality. “It is just so municipalities can compare themselves with their neighbors and they can make better decisions when budget time comes around and they have nice discussions in their council chambers,” says Gamrat. Institute President Jake Haulk says it also will be a great tool for residents, “I dare say that most people have no idea what the spending per capita in their municipality is.”
“I think this will be a step forward to help people think about what the size of government aught to be,” says Haulk. Haulk says he thinks people will at the report and then ask questions such as, ‘why are we spending more on roads than other municipalities? Is it because we have more roads, or are we not paying attention when we let the bids?’ Gamrat says the report will be full of footnotes to help people understand anomalies such as a spike in recreation spending in a year when a new park is built or higher than usual income in a municipality that hosts a mall or other major facility. The institute hopes to update the data every year and may begin comparing municipalities by land size, average income or other factors.

Applications Still Being Accepted for "FairCare"

There are still more than a thousand spots available in Pennsylvania's new high-risk health insurance pool.
Pennsylvania's Insurance Department received more than a thousand bids to join its new coverage plan for people with preexisting conditions during the first day of its application window.
But since then, things have slowed down, and fewer than two thousand people have applied for its 35-hundred spots.
Spokeswoman Melissa Fox says the department will launch radio and Internet ads over the next few weeks, in order to spread the word about the program.

"We're not going to do Philly or Pittsburgh, only because we're still seeing a steady stream of interest in those counties. In addition, those are the two most expensive media markets out there. So we hope to get some advertising out within the next few weeks, in early September."

The PA Fair Care program will run until 2014, when the new federal health care law kicks in.
Fox says there are more than 800-thousand uninsured Pennsylvanians, though the department doesn't know how many of them have preexisting health conditions.

You can apply at PAFairCare.com.

Falcons Must Move to Cliffs to Complete Recovery

State ornithologists say peregrine falcons must repopulate their natural cliff habitats before they can be taken off the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s endangered species list. However, the process is slow and sometimes frustrating, as past relocation efforts have failed.

While Pennsylvania’s peregrine nesting sites have increased from zero in 1964 to 29 today, only four of those nests are on cliffs, where peregrines lived before repopulating in cities.

The Game Commission’s peregrine management coordinator Arthur McMorris says the birds now occupy buildings, bridges, and smokestacks. He says while that’s fine for rebuilding the falcon population, fledglings falling from their nests has become a problem.

“If they fall out of the nest and the nest is on a cliff ledge, what typically happens is they will slide down to a lower ledge, and their parents take care of them there and everything’s fine,” says McMorris. “In the city, if they fall out of the nest, they end up on the sidewalk, in the street, in the river, whatever, and they perish.”

McMorris says it’s not a simple matter of introducing young falcons bred in captivity into cliff habitats. Past efforts to do so have resulted in all of the peregrines being eaten by great horned owls.

Adults are also resistant to relocation, so ornithologists are simply hoping for a migration to more natural habitats. McMorris says while it’s bound to be a slow process, cliff populations will increase more rapidly as more falcons populate cities as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seminar to Explore Health Risks of Shale Drilling

The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) is holding a seminar on the public health impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

CHEC Director Dan Volz says while there will be time for Pitt’s panel of three experts to take questions, most of the time will be dedicated to an academic presentation highlighting important public health issues.

Volz says one expert will also tell the audience about fractracker.org, CHEC’s website that records reams of data on Marcellus Shale activity. Another will speak on the social impacts of drilling.

The Pitt assistant professor says in addition to water supply concerns, Marcellus Shale drilling could also bring air quality issues as well.

The seminar is scheduled for 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. on Friday, at Parran Hall in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (130 DeSoto Street).

Audit: Customer Service Lacking at PWSA

For the first time since taking office, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb has audited the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and found it is doing a good job of dealing with its money but not as good of a job dealing with its customers. Controller Lamb says he found very few incidents where proper bidding procedures were not followed or documentation could not be found, but he says customer service is lacking at the PWSA. Workers in his office tried to contact the authority to get questions answered or complaints taken care of as part of the audit. He points to their effort to get a billing issue taken care of via email. “We sent them and email, three months went by without a response. We sent them an email again and even to this day… they have yet to respond,” says Lamb. Lamb says what makes that situation worse is when you are waiting on the customer service phone line the message tells you to send an email to get help. Lamb says phone calls complaints were treated with only slightly better care. The executive director of the authority acknowledges the customer service problem and asked the controller to make sure that was part of his audit. PWSA Executive Director Michael Kenney says he is working with the board to improve the situation.

The audit also found that there were problems with tracking overdue bills and placing liens on properties. Lamb says that could potentially lead to money not being collected if a delinquent customers moves. He says he feels that issue will be corrected when the P-W-S-A begins using new billing software later this year.

The audit also looked at the controversial line protection insurance offered by the PWSA through a contract with a third party. Many were angered when the new program was put in place. It used an opt-out configuration rather than an opt-in configuration as had been used in the past. Others complained that the contract to offer the insurance was given to a firm with ties to the PWSA’s executive director. Lamb says his audit did not explore those issues but it did look at the quality of the line insurance compared to its price and he says city water customers are getting a good deal.

On the financial side, Lamb says the audit found a few instances where contracts were amended rather than rebid as they should have been and a few instances where bid documents could not be found. He says he does not think any of the incidences were efforts to defraud. The audit recommends that all bid documents be kept in one place in the future and that a check list of needed documents be created to make sure the record keeping is robust.

Lack of Ballot Access Criticized

Advocates say major changes are needed to the Commonwealth's election code to level the playing field for third party and independent candidates. The call comes after all five third-party candidates for statewide office withdrew from the
November ballot.
Each faced petition challenges and cited fears that losing in court could saddle them with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Among them was Marakay Rogers, who was a Libertarian candidate for governor until the G-O-P disputed her petitions.
Rogers was part of a group who gathered in the state Capitol Rotunda to push for passage of the so-called "Voter's Choice Act" from State Senator Mike Folmer.
It would eliminate a formula that often requires third-party
candidates to secure thousands more petition signatures than major party
candidates. Folmer's measure would also lower the bar for what constitutes a "minor party." The bill has been sitting in the Senate State Government Committee for a year and a-half.
Bonita Hoke, executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, says her group wants to see more even and fair ballot access in Pennsylvania.

Rendell: Tax Oil Company Profits

Governor Ed Rendell has presented a two-pronged plan for generating about $1 billion dollars to fix up Pennsylvania's ailing roads and bridges. But neither part of the plan
is particularly surprising. Rendell and Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler are
proposing a new tax on oil company profits designed to bring in $576 million in the first year.
They also want to raise all motor vehicle fees, noting many of those costs have held steady for years while road construction prices have soared.
The governor says he's not married to the plan -- just to filling the gap left when the federal government shot down tolling Interstate 80. The state's transportation budget was counting on $492 million from tolling I-80.
As for the oil company tax, Rendell insists the state would be able to ensure that companies don't saddle consumers with the new levy through the use of forensic audits and market comparisons. Critics have indicated that trying to block oil companies from passing on the tax through increased prices at the pump might be illegal.
Absent from the proposal is hiking the state's gas tax, though
the governor says he would still support such a move.
It's not clear if the legislature will act on transportation funding before the November election, or even before Rendell leaves office in January.

Monday, August 23, 2010

EZ Pass Fees Will Rise

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is doubling the EZ Pass transponder fee from $3 a year to $6 a year, effective January 1st . EZ Pass customers set up prepaid accounts and mount transponders inside their windshields that make electronic deductions so they don’t have to stop at toll or ticket booths.

EZ Pass is good in fourteen states, and this is the first fee increase since the Pennsylvania system began in 2000, according to Turnpike spokesperson Carl DeFebo. He says it’s still a reasonable fee since people who sign up in some other states pay 12 to 18 dollars a year.

To sweeten the pill, when tolls go up on January 2nd, DeFebo says tolls for EZ Pass customers will go up only 3%, compared to %10 for cash customers. The toll savings will more than offset the fee increase for many, he says.

People who sign up before January 1st will pay just the $3 fee until their annual renewal in 2011. Most people set up their EZ Pass accounts at paturnpike.com, according to DeFebo, but it can be done at some Getgo stations, at Giant Eagle markets and AAA offices.

Fate of Arena no More Clear After Hearing

The members of the Allegheny County Sports and Exhibition Authority Board heard from roughly equal numbers of speakers for and against the razing of the civic arena to make way for new development at Monday’s public input session. The Penguins are pushing to have the arena torn down to make way for new development while those looking to save the arena want to take some time to look at the different re-use possibilities. They argue that there is no need to raze the building immediately saying instead it can be used sparingly to finance its upkeep while its future is being debated. The Penguins and their supporters say having the building in the way will limit interest in the site and slow the reconnection of the Hill District to the Golden Triangle. Russell Guest is an architect in the city and he says he has been talking to people about re-using the arena. “Everyone always turns to you and says ‘what do you want to do with it,’ and I always tell them ‘what can’t you do with it,’ “says Guest, “It’s a 415-foot clear span, if you can’t figure out how to use that to serve the city in a new way, you’re not very smart.” Allegheny County resident Mike Mc Donnell says at first he wanted to save the arena but after talking to Hill residents who felt otherwise, he pondered his position. “I wanted it to stay because I liked it. I, I, I. I took the position because I was being selfish, I wanted to stay because I liked it, and then it occurred to me. This was no basis for a position this important.” Several speakers told the board they have yet to fully make up their minds on saving or not saving the civic arena but they urged the board to take all steps necessary to make sure every option is explored before bringing in the wrecking ball. There is no time line for a final decision on the fate of the arena.

Listen to Save the Igloo Founder Rob Pfaffmann's 3:30 comments to the board here.

Listen to Penguins President David Morehouse's 2:30 comments to the board here.

'Parks are Free' Photo Contest

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy will hold its second “Parks are Free” photo contest, sponsored by the UPMC Health Plan. Take up to five pictures of anyone or anything in any park and email your entry to photos@pittsburghparks.org by September 30th. Rules and entry instructions are at pittsburghparks.org/photocontest. Each photo must include the photographer’s name, phone number, email address, and the name of the park where it was taken.

The twelve finalists’ photos will be displayed at the Schenley Park CafĂ© throughout November and made into a 2011 calendar available at the online store: www.zazzle.com/pittsburghparks. The winning photo will be published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the photographer will receive an item of his or her choice from the Conservancy’s online store. Last year’s 350 entries included landscapes, wildlife, and people, but any subject is allowed.

Communications Director Laura Cook says the Conservancy has broadened its reach to other city parks over thirteen years and raised almost $50 million to invest in Highland, Frick, Schenley and Riverview parks.

Shift Ed Funds to Bolster Pensions

State Senate Republican leaders are pressing Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to take advantage of an increase in federal education aid. They want him to redistribute state money to help fund public pensions.
When Congress passed a federal medical funding bill this month, lawmakers also approved a multi-billion dollar aid package for local school districts.
That gives Pennsylvania an unanticipated $380 million for education spending, and State Senate Republicans want Rendell to substitute that money for the 200 million dollar boost this year’s budget provides for the state basic education subsidy.
Caucus spokesman Erik Arneson says the Republicans want to redirect the state money, and use it to help pay for pension costs.

"So we think that it makes more sense to reallocate the 200 million dollars to the pensions, which are significantly underfunded. Even in this year’s budget we put less into the pension systems than the actuaries recommended we put in."

House Democrats oppose the idea, saying the state needs to maintain its support for education, no matter what federal aid levels are. Spokesman Brett Marcy says his caucus is skeptical about the proposal.

"What the House Democrats have been consistent in saying is, we cannot abandon our commitment to property taxpayers and abandon our commitment to our children to adequately fund public education in Pennsylvania. It has to be funded adequately at the state level."

The Senate Republicans say they’re worried all the federal money for schools will create a billion-plus dollar cliff, leading to budget problems when the funding disappears next year.

Study Reveals Increased Use of Antibiotics by Seniors

A University of Pittsburgh study of spending on antibiotics under Medicare Part D shows an increase in antibiotics use by seniors with pneumonia, which is an improvement, but also an increase in broad-spectrum antibiotics, which could mean an overuse of inappropriate drugs.
The study’s lead author, Yuting Zhang, of the Graduate School of Public Health says there’s been a major improvement for those with pneumonia who did not have drug coverage before the implementation of Medicare Part D. “It’s important that they use antibiotics to control their condition.”
However, she says there is also a misuse of prescription antibiotics, and this could lead to excessive government spending and overdose.
Zhang says there are a few things that can be done to prevent the misuse of these antibiotics without changing Medicare Part D. “There could be different education programs or reimbursement policy changes.” For example, she says policymakers could consider using a different pricing strategy that may involve charging higher for certain drugs that may not be appropriate for certain patients.
The assistant professor of health economics says they maintain one goal: to find another type of reimbursement policy program to reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics… “Which always has been a very important thing and we have made a lot of progress and probably still have some room to improve on that.”

Rendell to Spell Out Transportation Budget

Governor Ed Rendell says he will greet Pennsylvania lawmakers when they return to Harrisburg this morning with details on how he plans to fill a state transportation budget gap. The Governor has been touring the state in recent weeks while the legislature has been on break giving hints about his proposals. Among his ideas is an increase in the state’s gas tax and higher registration and licenses fees. State Senator Jay Costa of Forest Hills is the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He says he’s anxious to hear the governor’s plan. A recent study says not only does the state need to fill the gap created when the federal government rejected a bid to toll I-80, but it also needs to add millions of dollars a year to the transportation budget to keep up with the repair and replacement demands of crumbling roads and bridges. Costa says he thinks now is the time to approve revenue enhancements dedicated to transportation. He notes that Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett has already taken a no new tax pledge and may not be willing to increase fees. To make sure the work gets done this year, Senator Costa says legislative leaders may need to work past the deadline created by the November 2nd election. Currently the Senate does not have any voting session days scheduled after October 14th. Costa says a special session on transportation can go into late November if needed.

Religious Art Exhibit Coming to History Center

From October 2nd through January 9th, the Senator John Heinz History Center will host "Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art", an exhibition of more than 200 items from the Vatican, along with more than fifty local artifacts of religious and historical significance.

History Center President and CEO Andy Masich says he agreed immediately to host the exhibit, not only because he knew the Vatican collection is world class, but because 60% of Western Pennsylvanians self-identify as Catholic, and people of any religion will find the art and history fascinating.

There will be a perfect copy of Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, which Masich says was used to restore the vandalized original in 1972, plus art works by Bernini and Giotto. Some items are 2,000 years old and some as recent as bronze casts of Pope John Paul 2's hands, which visitors will be able to touch.

Masich says the reliquaries are especially fascinating, both from the Vatican and from the Chapel of St. Anthony in Troy Hill, which houses the largest collection outside the Vatican.

Museum members, local parishes, and religious congregations can get discounted tickets now. They go on sale to the general public September 19th.

New Program Will Support Caregivers

Caregiver Champion is a new program that will help family and informal caregivers care for themselves, reduce stress and better connect with caregiving resources.

Caregiver Champions will consist of six Caregiver Learning Circles, free two-hour discussions. Each session will have an expert who will provide advice on topics such as identifying caregiver burnout to ways to organization tips.

The sessions are currently being held in Penn Hills, Monroeville, Squirrel Hill, Oakmont and Upper St. Clair. In the fall there will be sessions in Shaler, Bellevue and Downtown Pittsburgh.

The program is an initiative of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

More information on the program is available at www.caregiverchampions.org

Friday, August 20, 2010

Animal Activist stay Faithful in Harrisburg

For more than three weeks, a lone protester has chained herself to a doghouse on the state Capitol steps in an effort to bring attention to legislation that would prevent dog owners from doing the same to their animals. Tamira Thayne has stood in the blistering sun and in the pouring rain. She's been chained to a doghouse for ten hours a day since August 2nd, and vows to keep at it for at least another month, even though she stopped generating news headlines after her first week of protests. “If I was only doing this for the media attention, I would have packed up on day three,” says Thayne, “I'm doing this for the dogs. I'm here for the dogs. I'm here for their law. And I'm not going away, no matter how boring it is. And let me tell you - it's very boring.” Thayne doesn't let herself read or take part in any other leisure activities. She says she wants to mirror the conditions of the dogs she's fighting for. The bill would bar tethering dogs between 10 PM and 6 am, and make it illegal to keep dogs outside when it's below freezing or above 90 degrees. Legislators have only given Thayne token responses, saying they'll "take a look" at the bill this fall. She says she's prepared to keep waiting, “There's power to doing something that no one else would do. There's power to doing something for these dogs that no one else is going to do. And no matter what happens with regards to the law, I know I'm doing what I have to do for them.” Thayne says the worst moment was a heavy rainstorm that flooded most of downtown Harrisburg, “it was coming down the steps, and it was - you could see it in the footage blowing in the road. There was stuff blowing all through the air. And it was just crazy. And then I found out the next day half the city flooded out, and I was just standing in that deluge. So that was probably the craziest half-hour that I've spent out here. “ The measure is stalled in a Senate Committee.

Allegheny County Joins Energy Saving Program

Thursday, August 19, Allegheny County participated in the PJM Interconnection’s Demand Response Program by reducing their electricity use for an hour-long test.
The purpose of the program is to reduce the use of electricity when heavy demand threatens the PJM electricity grid, which serves 51 million people in 13 states.
The county’s Deputy Director of Operations, Phillip LeMay says PJM Interconnections approached the county to volunteer for this program. “They want more planned participation in building owners to be ready to respond to excessive demand on the electrical grid.” He says PJM has provided incentive for building owners to participate, which is a money reimbursement if they reach their goal.
LeMay says the county court house, county jails, county office building, medical examiner’s office and some detention centers limited their use of electricity from 2 to 3 p.m. He says everyone was very cooperative and believes they’d be prepared for a real event. “Just from an observation perspective I think it was a good success.”
He says they were given a weeks notice to plan the test, but if a real event were to occur they’d be given 24 hours. Limited use of electricity would last from 4 to 6 hours during an actual event.
LeMay says a report with the results will be in some time next week. If they’ve done well, they’ll receive a reward; otherwise, they’ll have to work on the plan. “Once we see the report, we can see where we need to tweak the plan and improve our communication for next time.”

Hearings for Regional Asset District Applicants

Next week the Regional Asset District will begin the process of deciding how it will divvy up more than $85 million in sales tax receipts in the coming year. 97 organizations have submitted applications for the funds and starting Tuesday, August 24, the RAD board will hold a series of public hearings. The first will come at 3:30 on the 31st floor of the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown.
Executive Director David Donahoe says RAD is responsible for distributing a portion of the county sales tax to regional assets each year, and this year they’re giving away a total of $85.6 million. He says these hearings are held to give applicants a chance to explain why they deserve funds.
Donahoe says the hearings will run for 4 weeks, ending in mid-September. He says applicants include 10 large organizations: the Carnegie Library, Carnegie Museums, City of McKeesport, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Regional Parks, the National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium, and the Allegheny County Library Association. Smaller organizations make up the remaining 87 applicants.
Donahoe says there are no major differences this year in terms of applicants and the amount of funding, however Carnegie Library has asked for an increase from last year. “It receives funds from the state and will begin receiving money from table games revenue. Adding that all up they still feel they need an increase from the district and they’ve made that request.”
He says the board of 7 volunteer citizens will decide which 85 to 90 organizations will receive what they’ve asked for. Donahoe says there will be presentation meetings and public meetings sometime in October before any decisions are final.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Onorato Talks Economics at Pgh. Training Center

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato visited a vocational training facility in Pittsburgh today, praising the site as an important part of Pennsylvania’s economic recovery.

The Pittsburgh Job Corps is training about 350 youths in 10 vocational programs, including healthcare, energy, and maintenance. The center also helps students get college degrees from the Community Colleges of Allegheny and Butler Counties.

Onorato says sites like this are part of his four-point plan to turn around the state’s economy.

“One of those four points is making sure that our Votech schools, our community colleges, our training facilities, our four-year degree colleges, that we have curriculums that match the needs of our companies or the industries that we have today and what we expect to have tomorrow,” says Onorato. “When you see placements of 90% to 100% depending on what field here, it’s working.”

The Allegheny County Executive says he also wants to lower the corporate tax, and make the state more attractive to businesses by loosening Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation regulations. He says as governor, he would try to close loopholes that allow corporations to avoid corporate taxes.

Airport Cuts Energy Usage for One Hour

The Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA) took part in a regional energy conservation test program at the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) today from 2 to 3 pm. The energy conservation project is called PJM Demand Response.
Airport Spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny says this is an effort to “lighten the load” on the electric grid in the Northeastern part of the country. She says lights, air conditioning, electric walkways, escalators and other devices will be switched off in some areas of the airport. Ultimately, they’d like to save about 2,000 kilowatts.
Jenny says this will not impact flights and will have minimal affect on passengers and employees. ACAA has implemented a customer service plan for the hour long power outage, such as having extra employees around to help people with disabilities. She says only one train will run to and from terminals, which may cause minor delays.
Jenny says, “It’s a project where if we do meet the amount of energy savings that we set as our goal, there is some financial incentive—we’ll get some type of reimbursement.”
Jenny says several companies are participating in the program in 13 states, with the goal of saving nearly 3,000 megawatts.

Penn State Opens Research Center On Marcellus Shale

Penn State has established the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.
The center’s co-director Tom Murphy says the center is funded entirely by the university. He says they’ve moved some dollars from other programs towards this particular effort because of the high demand for information on Marcellus drilling, since it impacts so many Pennsylvanians.
Murphy says, “The outreach part of [the center] is to take some of that same information out to wherever the demand might be within the different clientele groups we work with.” He says there’s a wide range of audiences that results will be reported to, such as state and federal legislators and landowners who are facing some of the impacts from drilling, industry and environmental groups.
Murphy says research will be made public. “We’ve done over 400 [public outreach meetings] over the last 5 and a half years. We’ll also have a series of "webinars" over time, and we have a website that we’ll be posting some of the results as it becomes available.”
Murphy says a number of current and future projects will involve undergraduate and graduate students. “There’ll be a variety of great opportunities going there for students.”

'Only' 100 State Jobs to be Cut

Governor Rendell began the summer by warning of a budget “Armageddon,” with up to 20,000 state employee layoffs. He gathered reporters yesterday to say he has whitled than number down to about 100. In order to get to that number Rendell has trimmed an additional 1.9% from state department budgets and he is counting on the state legislature passing a Marcellus Shale gas extraction tax. Some lawmakers do not want to create such a tax at all and others are looking to hold off until a new governor takes office in January. Rendell says he thinks he can get his version through the legislature, “This assumes that there’ll be a significant 40, 50 percent share going to the locals. And yes, if it will assuage their consciences, that’s less money we would have had to cut from the environmental budget.” Rendell says he was also helped by an unusual amount of employee retirements, as well as a hiring freeze. Rendell says he’s keeping a $200 million education increase in place, and is ignoring Senate Republicans’ suggestion to shift the money to the state’s pension fund. “Rather than cut education, and I don’t mean to be cavalier about this, but there is easily $200 million in legislative balances,” says Rendell, “If the legislature cares about the pension fund they can use that $200 million, rather than education funding, to buttress the education fund.” In the past, House and Senate leaders have been hesitant to use those funds contending that it is their hedge against a governor who is unwilling to spend on high priority issues.

New Lights, Development Coming to Pittsburgh Neighborhood

Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington – with its panoramic view of the city and two inclines – is a heavily trafficked roadway. Now, the strip is getting new lighting to replace the lights that have been around since the 1960s. Chris Beichner, Executive Director of the the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation says the project cost $400,000 and will adhere to new lighting standards. "They're LED lights, they're dark sky compliant, we're just happy to be using energy efficient technology that's putting on a brighter, whiter light." He says the lighting is just one of the changes coming to the community. They've also just completed a trail plan for Emerald View Park as well as a housing plan to develop a real estate program to restore homes and to build new houses in vacant lots. Plus, new businesses and restaurants are moving into the area, which Beichner attributes both to the activism of the community and to the new $100 million hotel/condominium project that will be located near the Mon Incline. Beichner says many people don't realize that Mount Washington is more than just a great view. "We're a minutes walk from downtown, our housing stock is great quality and very affordable compared to other neighborhoods and we just have great access to the interstate – we're a real quick drive to the airport, plus 90% of our homes are a quarter mile from a park."

A ribbon cutting for the new lights takes place Thursday at 5:30pm on Grandview Avenue and Shiloh Street.

Medical Marijuana Hearing Thursday at Pitt

A Pennsylvania House committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that would legalize medicinal marijuana in the Commonwealth. The meeting will focus specifically on medical and law enforcement testimony. Pittsburgh Attorney Patrick Nightingale is the director of the local chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and says the medical benefits are clear. He says marijuana reduces spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, nausea for chemotherapy patients, and inner ocular eye pressure for those with glaucoma as well as chronic pain. And he says concerns that marijuana is a gateway drug are baseless, noting in California where medicinal marijuana has been legal since 1996, "studies have shown no correlation between medical marijuana use and an increase in teen drug use."  The Pennsylvania law would have "compassionate use centers" be responsible for growing, taxing and distributing medical marijuana and Nightingale says these centers are already used in other states like Colorado, New Mexico and Maine. The bill would also let medicinal marijuana users grow up to six plants and possess an ounce of pot.  The legislation would hand the Pennsylvania Department of Health the responsibility of overseeing, regulating and enforcing laws. And Nightgale thinks the bill will pass easily noting "a Franklin and Marshall poll from May shows 80% of Pennsylvanians either strongly support or somewhat support medical marijuana in the state. I've never heard of poll numbers like that and if you're following those numbers it should be a no-brainer for the legislators to say hey, my constituents want this, we're going to do it."

The hearing takes place Thursday August 19 at 3pm at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Last Large Allegheny County Brownfield to be Developed


Plans announced today for the 168-acre brownfield at the Carrie Furnace site along the Mon River include economic development and inclusion in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Opened in 1884, the Carrie blast furnaces produced iron ore to make steel at the Homestead Works until 1982. Allegheny County bought the site in 2005 with 5.75 million federal, state and local dollars.

Already designated National Landmarks, Congressman Mike Doyle has introduced a bill that would make the furnaces a National Historic Site owned and operated by the National Park Service.

Allegheny County will request proposals in the fall for development of the vacant land, to include residential, eco-industrial, and flex office structures, a riverfront trail with connections, and a link to the East Busway in Rankin.
Congressman Doyle says he remembers the incredulity that greeted ambitious development plans years ago at the Homestead Works, but the Waterfront has exceeded all expectations and driven the surrounding communities' economies.

See more pictures of the site on our Facebook page.

SEIU, Sodexo Reach Contract Deal

Unionized food service workers at the University of Pittsburgh will have higher wages and more affordable health insurance under a new three-year contract with employer Sodexo.

The deal comes almost four months after about 200 union employees held a three-day strike protesting low wages and high-priced insurance.

Non-union Sodexo employees will not receive the benefits of the agreement.

32BJ SEIU Western Pennsylvania Director Gabe Morgan says Sodexo’s previous health insurance plan was unaffordable for many of the employees. Morgan says under the new contract, Sodexo is offering multiple health insurance options at varying rates. The company will pay 90% of employees’ premiums and 80% of family coverage.

Morgan says every union employee will also receive a wage increase. The highest-paid workers will receive a minimum increase of $1.50 per hour over three years, while the lowest-paid employees would see a total three-year increase of up to $4.00 an hour. He says that will bring the pay range from about $10.00 to around $15.00 an hour, about two dollars per hour more than in the previous contract.

“This settlement and what’s happened with our union members is a much more accurate reflection of what happens to most folks who work on the University of Pittsburgh campus,” says Morgan. “Most folks there do have affordable health insurance. Most folks there do make a decent wage. We’re really happy to see Sodexo’s food service workers begin to fall into line with the good norms that exist at the university.”

Morgan says SEIU is working with the non-union employees to help them get the same benefits that their unionized coworkers will receive. He says SEIU is one of several entities across the nation bringing charges against Sodexo with the National Labor Relations Board. SEIU claims that Sodexo management tried to prevent workers from organizing in late April.

Bill Would Give Radar to Local Police

Supporters turned out in force this week at a hearing on a bill that would give municipal police department the ability to use radar and other technologies to catch speeders. Pennsylvania Senator Barry Stout of Washington County chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He says the provision would apply to all full time police departments. Right now only the Pennsylvania State Police are permitted to use radar. The committee heard from the State Police, the Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and John Dorin, Mayor of Montoursville Borough. Supporters of the proposed legislation say it’s a matter public safety. Each year, about 1,500 traffic fatalities occur in Pennsylvania with nearly 50% of them being attributed to speeding and aggressive driving. Pennsylvania is the only state that does not permit local police departments to use radar. Detractors say local police departments will use the technology as a ‘cash cow’ to shore up sagging budgets. In answer to that Senate Bill 554 would place a cap on how much money a municipality could collect in fines. A municipality could not get more than 5% of it's annual budget from tickets. Any money collected over the cap would go to the State Police for highway safety.

At the hearing State and local police also requested that they be permitted to use other speed-detection technology such as the relatively new device “LIDAR” (Light Detection and Ranging). LIDAR sends out an infrared laser beam rather than a radio wave. 92% of the states, including all of the states surrounding Pennsylvania, use LIDAR.

Clairton Coke Works to Reduce Pollution

Residents of Liberty and Clairton can expect cleaner air in the years to come, thanks to emissions reductions slated for the Clairton Coke Works.

Owner U.S. Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reduce the plant’s fine particulate pollution by 320 tons each year.

ACHD spokesman Guillermo Cole says the air quality improvements will come from the replacement of two quench towers that cool the coke, and from bringing three coke oven batteries into emissions compliance.

Cole says this agreement comes in addition to a 2008 document already requiring the plant to reduce particulate pollution.

“We’ve already seen the permanent shutdown of three older coke oven batteries. That has reduced particulate emissions already by 383 tons. The rebuild of Battery B has also dramatically reduced emissions, so these further improvements come on top of some major emission reductions that have already been achieved.”

Cole says the new emissions reductions are not tied to an explosion at the plant’s B Battery earlier this summer.

The Liberty/Clairton area is now expected to attain the national air quality standard by December of 2013, the same time this project is slated to be completed.

Shale Tax Plays Role in Gov. Race

Allegheny County Executive and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato says he’s skeptical a natural gas severance tax will be signed into law before the next governor takes office. Onorato has been using the severance tax as a campaign issue, promising to direct revenue to environmental causes and local communities, if elected. His opponent, Republican Tom Corbett, has come out against the tax. Reminded that legislative leaders have promised to pass a tax into law by October 1, making the levy a non-issue for the next governor, Onorato said he doubts the General Assembly will reach its goal. “I’m skeptical of seeing a vote on a severance tax thirty days before an election,” says Onorato, “If they do it, I think it’s great. Even if they do do it, you can always revisit how you can spend the money as a new governor.” House Speaker Keith McCall and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi maintain both parties are serious about the self-imposed October 1 deadline. McCall’s spokesperson, Bob Caton, says, “Everybody’s aware it’s coming. It’s hardly a shock. It was part of the budget bill, with a hard deadline put into the budget bill. We’re pretty sure the work’s going to get done, and the discussions are going to be ongoing.” Governor Rendell is pushing for at least 70 million dollars of severance tax revenue to go into the general fund, to help fill a deficit in this year’s budget. A group of conservative Republican house and senate members have come out against the tax and at least one Democrat has said he prefers to leave the issue for the next governor.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Speakers Weigh-in on Bill Requiring Paid Sick Leave

The House Labor Relations Committee held a hearing on legislation that would allow workers to collect paid sick leave. Several people from a number of organizations testified on behalf of the Happy Families Healthy Workplaces Act, which would require employers with 10 or more workers to  provide one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, with a cap at 52 hours. Pathways PA’s President and CEO Carol Goertzel testified, saying workers should not have to choose between their job and their family’s well-being. She says in Pennsylvania, 46% of private-sector workers and 78% of low wage workers lack access to paid sick days. She says those are often people who work with the general population, such as restaurant, child-care, and nursing home employees. Goertzel says most employers fear that offering paid sick leave to employees will hurt their business and ultimately the economy. However, where it has been implemented, she says employers claim it's a success. “Employers who offer the opportunity to earn sick time say it ultimately improves their bottom line, not hurts it.”

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, Acting Physician for the Pennsylvania Department of Health says the common recommendation to “stay at home when you’re sick” goes ignored too often, yet is one of the most effective ways to get better and avoid spreading illness. He also says it's common knowledge that sick individuals are not as productive as those who are well. “We also know that when individuals are present in the work place or at school while they’re sick, they will inevitably spread this disease to their co-workers and classmates.”

Ridge Speaks for Marcellus Shale Coalition

Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge spoke to a convention of energy company representatives today, stressing the need for environmentally safe Marcellus Shale gas extraction while hailing the industry’s economic benefits.

Ridge says state government should be the regulating authority on gas drilling, not individual municipalities. The former governor says the drilling ban proposed by Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields should be just the “first chapter” in a longer discussion.

Ridge says there should be public information sessions on the drilling process to assuage people’s fears for the environment.

“It was explained to me how they are able to drill through the water table, how you layer in layers of steel and cement through the water table so you don’t pollute it. There’s a tremendous amount of engineering and science that goes into this, and I think part of our challenge is to better understand it,” says Ridge.

Ridge says drilling presents three revenue opportunities for the state: corporate income tax, employee income tax, and a possible extraction tax. He says natural gas prices would drop, and Pennsylvania could become a major global exporter of the resource.

Ridge is being paid by the Marcellus Shale Coalition for a year of consulting.

Services for Vets

On Saturday August 21st, the Veteran's Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania and a few dozen other organizations will host StandDown 2010, an outreach event for homeless veterans. The event will be held at Shepard's Heart in Uptown and will help people with essential medical exams, housing, employment assistance, peer mentoring, legal services, food, showers, haircuts and more.

The event will be held from 8am to 6pm.

Al Mercer, Executive Director of the Veteran's Leadership Program of Western PA says this concept comes from the military term for Stand Down where troops are provided a
safe retreat when they return from combat operations. At secure base camp areas, they take showers, eat and get their medical needs taken care of by other troops.

Teacher and ACLU reach Agreement

The American Civil Liberties Union has reached an agreement with the Brownsville Area school district who suspended a teacher because photographs of her with a stripper appeared online.

Ginger D’Amico, a high school Spanish teacher in Fayette County was penalized after images of her with a stripper at a bachelorette party she hosted for a fellow teacher were posted on Facebook. The photos were posted by another school district employee and were online for less than a day. She was suspended for 30 school days without pay because hers was the only identifiable face in the photos.
"That’s the first time I’ve ever been in any kind of trouble in 14 years of teaching. I really was devastated because I really take pride in being a good teacher and a mentor and it kind of ripped my heart out," she said.

D’Amico’s record was cleared and she will be paid back wages for the time she was suspended. She will also get a $10,000 dollar settlement that will be split with the ACLU, who provided her legal representation.

Vic Walczak, legal director for Pennsylvania’s ACLU says the question raised is to what extent public employers discipline employees for off-duty conduct. Legally, he says this is a gray area.

"There needs to be a line that restricts public employers from being allowed to punish employees only if they do something that substantially harms the employer and emloyee’s ability to do their job," he said.

Butch Santicola, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association says this is a recurring problem with teachers.

"The technology that’s out there with the cell phones and cameras and pictures are being taken, facebook, twitter all of them, we’re very cautious of that and we need to be very very cautious of that," he said.
Other school district employees received disciplinary letters. Their arbitration is scheduled for September.

School District’s Academic Results Are In

Pittsburgh Public Schools received the positive overall results on the 2010 Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), but failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
According to a press release from the district, PSSA scores show students have improved in both Reading and Mathematics, receiving proficiency on 10 of 14 exams with more than a 2 percent increase on 8 of 14 exams. They’ve also moved up to the advanced level on 10 of 14 exams, with a 3 or more percent increase on 6 of 14 exams.
Grades 6-8 have showed the most success, achieving proficiency at each grade level on both Reading and Mathematics.

Last year, the District achieved AYP for the first time in history. However, this year, both 3-5 and 6-8 grade spans have failed to achieve that goal. To obtain AYP, both grade spans much make all 18 targets in both Mathematics and Reading. This year, the District met all 18 targets in Mathematics, but failed to meet one target in Reading in 3-5 and 6-8 grade spans. Results show that in both grade groups, the only group to fail the Reading target was students with an Individualized Education Program plan, or special education students. On a positive note, though the District did not make AYP overall, the number of schools that made it increased to 72%, or 43 out of 60 schools.

In the press release, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt says, “Although we are disappointed that the District just missed making AYP, we are very pleased that considerably more of our schools did make it. The progress we are seeing, particularly in grades 6-8, confirms that bold, aggressive change is necessary in order to improve student achievement.”

Grade 11 students’ PSSA results have been low for the past few years, and with campaigns such as Excellence for All, Roosevelt has been aiming to improve those scores. However, at the high school level, 2010 PSSA high school results remain at a standpoint with a 2.4 point increase in Reading and a 0.3 point decrease in Mathematics proficiency, reiterating that changes must be made.

The District plans to provide the Board and public with a full presentation of the 2010 PSSA results at the Board's Education Committee Meeting today, August 17.
To view the complete listing of district-level PSSA results, click here.

Activists: Hazelwood Man Wrongfully Imprisoned

Human rights activists say they have new evidence proving the innocence of a Hazelwood man convicted of homicide.

A small group delivered about 550 signatures to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office today, demanding the release of Terrell Johnson after 16 years in prison. The D.A.’s office accepted the petition, but did not comment.

Terrell Johnson’s wife, Saundra Cole, says Johnson’s legal team will have a new witness at his October retrial who can refute the testimony of Evelyn McBride, the prosecution’s key witness.

“Recently, [McBride] lived with a young lady named Hazel Hastings, and she’s on a video stating that Evelyn McBride stated that Terrell had nothing at all to do with this case. He just got caught up because he was from the Hazelwood area,” says Cole.

Human Rights Coalition organizer Bret Grote says Johnson’s presumption of innocence has been reinstated since his October 25 retrial was approved last fall.

Cole says the D.A. offered Johnson a deal for 7 ½ to 15 years, which would have allowed the man to be released because of time already served. However, Cole says Johnson turned down the deal because he would have retained the homicide charge on his record.

Grote says three men were accused of murdering Verna Robinson on July 21, 1994, but Johnson was the only one convicted because his lawyer was incompetent. Grote says Johnson’s legal team will be much more prepared for his retrial.

Councilman says 'No' to Drillers

Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields says he is not going to follow the advise of the city law department and will instead move forward with plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit Marcellus Shale drilling in the city. The law department and legal scholars have told Shields in the past that such legislation runs contrary to state law. Shields says he wants to protect the residents of Pittsburgh from some of the environmental impacts being attributed to shale drilling in other parts of the state. However, he says the decision to introduce the legislation goes beyond gas drilling. He says it is about “local self government” and the ability to “say ‘no’ to corporations that will cause damage to our community.” Although no drilling applications have been filed in the city there are reports of energy companies sending letters to residents laying the groundwork for drilling in a handful of neighborhoods in the city including Lawrenceville.

PA Takes Step 2 in Collecting Back Taxes

As a follow-up to this spring’s tax amnesty window, Pennsylvania’s Revenue Department is publishing the names of 39,000 tax delinquents on its website. The number of tax dodgers posted on the site is ten times larger than previous lists. In the past the department only listed delinquent companies, but now, Revenue Secretary Dan Hassell says the site shows the names, home counties and lien amounts for individuals as well. “This is something that we don’t do lightly,” says Hassell, “I don’t like to be in a position where we have to embarrass people into doing the right thing. But sometimes sending the letter or making the phone call doesn’t have the desired effect, and we don’t have any other choice but to do that.” The amnesty program offered earlier this year brought in $260 million. Last year PA Governor Ed Rendell promised to ramp up efforts to collect delinquent taxes by hiring 40 new revenue collection agents, but the department suffered nearly $9 million in budget cuts, so Hassell says those new positions were never created. Hassell says they are launching this program because it is the fair thing to do for residents who pay their taxes on time. And he thinks it will work, “Many times we would contact somebody and say, hey if you don’t get this resolved now then your name is going to be on the Internet as someone who doesn’t pay their taxes. And that will motivate them to make their payment,” says Hassell.

Gas Leases in Allegheny County Spike

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research say the number of properties leased for oil and gas exploration in Allegheny County jumped by 322% from 2008 to 2009. The finding was part of a study that looked at county real estate data from 2003 to May of 2010. The research show about 7% of the county has been leased for exploration since 2003. Researchers say the spike in 2009 can be attributed to the interest in Marcellus Shale drilling.