Saturday, April 30, 2011
Pat McMahon says there have been no contract talks since Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato left a meeting 4 weeks ago. During the public comment period at the PAT Board meeting, McMahon told board members they should either resume negotiations or resign.
It was Onorato who rejected an offer of $18.5 million in temporary concessions by the union, not the PAT Board. At the time, Onorato said he became involved because the PAT Board had already made its decision about service cuts. Onorato said the concessions offer did not address the legacy costs of health care and pensions for retired PAT workers.
PAT CEO Steve Bland said at the end of yesterday's board meeting that they gave the union information about health care costs 2 weeks ago, but have not received a reply.
In 1925, 747 people were killed in a line of storms that ripped through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
Emergency buildings are wiped out, and in one neighborhood, the storms even left firefighters to work without a truck.
Alabama suffered the most destruction from the tornadoes with at least 248 deaths. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley says 1,700 people were injured by the tornadoes.
The American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania has deployed 2 emergency response vehicles (ERV) and 4 volunteers to Hoover, Alabama to help victims of the storms. The volunteers, Phil Shumway of Carnegie, Tom Palmquist of Bethel Park, Kenneth Brown of Pleasant Hills and Carole Magargee of Greenville, Mercer County left last night and are driving the ERV's to Alabama. They will assist with the mobile feeding of victims. Their deployments are expected to last 2 to 3 weeks but the Red Cross says the ERV's could remain on site longer.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich set the tone when he ripped the President for not having a foreign policy that encouraged gun rights in other nations. He said the Obama Administration is the most consistently anti-second amendment administration the nation has ever seen. “In its efforts to help get anti-gun international treaties, in its effort to appoint anti-gun judges, in its effort to avoid prosecuting gun criminals while taking away the rights of innocent citizens,” said Gingrich.
Former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania followed on the list of speakers and followed the growing theme. Santorum bashed Obama for a recent statement the president made that he believed that America became great when it passed Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment laws. “Our President has to believe in who we are and then reflect those values to the world. Not see America as something broken, something that wasn’t good or great before our big government policies were introduced,” said Santorum.
Both Santorum and Gingrich are said to be considering runs for the presidency.
Santorum went on to strike out at those who he says have told him that there needs to be “a truce on moral issues” during the upcoming presidential campaign. “They don’t understand. America is a moral enterprise. Unless we are a good and virtuous people, we will not be a free people; we will not have limited government. What makes America special is that we trust you.”
Several other speakers touched on the theme of the US Government gaining its power from the people, rather than the people being granted powers by the sovereign.
Listen to the Newt Gingrich’s speech to the NRA convention. (26:00)
Listen to Rick Santorum’s speech to the NRA convention. (15:00)
Listen to US Senator Pat Toomey’s speech to the NRA convention. (5:48)
Listen to Congressman Jason Altmire’s speech to the NRA Convention. (6:47)
Nacheman says the coalition wants the NRA to join them in seeking basic reforms: lost or stolen handgun reporting (which Pittsburgh passed and the NRA opposed) and fixing the broken background check system. He says loopholes allow criminals to buy weapons without background checks, and there are millions of missing records that could block prohibited purchasers from buying firearms. He says state and local governments should require a background check for every gun sale in America and should get the missing data into the system.
Even though Pennsylvania requires a background check for every handgun sale, even at gun shows, surrounding states do not, so people can easily bring in guns for which there's been no background check, according to Nacheman.
Reverend Chad Collins of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network says Pennsylvania has more African American gun deaths than any other state, which wreaks terror on communities, and an average of 600 Pennsylvanians die each year from gun violence.
Pat Maisch will attend the rally. She helped take Jared Loughner’s ammunition clip away when he tried to kill Cong. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson last January.
Other sponsors are B-PEP, the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice, the Falk Foundation, and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Fitzgerald says that this is a proactive measure to create transparency. "People today with tax dollars want to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. We have to account for every single dollar that we spend...but this is a way for the public to easily track the dollars without having to trapse downtown and go into the courthouse and go through the records."
Rich Fitzgerald says that this is something he believes he can do as policy if he is elected County Executive, but also would not be bothered if County Council approval is needed. He says Council has a track record of creating transparency and streamlining government, and they showed that by streamlining 9-11 services, reducing council staff and not increasing property taxes.
The event is sponsored by Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a non-profit whose goal is to preserve affordable homeownership by providing rehabilitation services to those in need at no cost.
Alan Sisco, program director for the Pittsburgh chapter of the organization, says nationwide they operate in about 200 cities and towns to help low-income people "stay safe in their homes. So, we bring resources and skills to bear, to provide in Pittsburgh's case, primarily seniors with free home repairs."
Sisco says the work and all materials and supplies are free to the homeowner, and that Rebuilding Day highlights the extensive work they do throughout the year. He says there is an application process and low-income seniors are often referred to Rebuilding Together by social service agencies. According to Sisco, professional home inspectors volunteer to look at the homes and determine what needs to be done then "we take a look at what resources we have ...and match the home up with a qualified volunteer group."
This Saturday the volunteers will be working on 31 homes in the Pittsburgh area. "We'll be doing everything from cleaning up yards, clearing out gutters, painting, landscaping, building wheelchair ramps, installing wheelchair accessible bathtubs. We've got people receiving new roofs, where their roofs were leaking. We're installing new electrical service where outlets were no longer safe. There is nothing in the scope of home modification that is beyond our volunteers."
Sisco says it's truly a community effort with volunteers from companies, churches, schools and building trades unions.
"As America's gun owning population is aging and dying off, they're not being replaced. You have young people who aren't picking up guns like they're parents did and more and more Americans are choosing to live in gun-free homes."
With the National Rifle Association coming to Pittsburgh this week, Sugarmann was passionate about his views against having a gun in the home.
"Here's the reality: it increases the likelihood of death and injury to you or a member of your family."
The survey found household gun ownership has reached the all-time low since it peaked in 1977. At that time 54 percent of American households reported having guns. By 2010, it had dropped to 33.2 percent.
"The biggest overriding theme of the event itself is about community, about coming together, about creativity and all these things that make Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh special."
Wilhelm also says that each year the event has the same structure, but its the volunteers who come with suggestions that make the occasion different. This year, they are having live DJ mixing by local artists. She also notes that the event can be completely different depending on what time you arrive.
Children's activities start will be from 4-8 p.m. on Saturday and also from 10-2 p.m. on Sunday. Throughout the night will be live performances and art on display. Art All Night is spending its second year at the Iron City Brewery Property on 3340 Liberty Avenue. The event is free and open to the public.
House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County released a statement calling the fee a “weak alternative” to a broader severance tax. “The huge corporations that will make billions of dollars by taking gas out of Pennsylvania must pay their fair share,” he argued. “This small impact fee will not achieve that. Right now, those corporations pay nothing. With this impact fee, they would pay only a small fraction of what they should.” Democratic Senator Jim Ferlo of Pittsburgh, an outspoken opponent of drilling who’s pushing for a statewide hydraulic fracturing moratorium, was equally critical. “There is evidence that the gas drilling industry will leave scars on the Pennsylvania landscape that will place a cost on state government and all Pennsylvania taxpayers,” he said in a statement. “A severance tax is uniform and fair, and is not unreasonable when you compare it to our competitor states. We should enact a severance tax now to make sure that we are not making our taxpayers pay for the impacts of the drilling industry.”
Environmental advocates are also cold on the idea. Myron Arnowitt of Clean Water Action didn’t like the fact the fee puts money into conservation districts, rather than the Growing Greener program. “There’s also no resources that will be available to the Department of Environmental Protection from this proposal. DEP has had their budget cut every year, and they are the agency that gets to oversee and make sure we don’t have negative impacts from Marcellus Shale drilling.”
Scarnati preemptively addressed these concerns during his initial conference call, pointing out a fee directing money to DEP – whose budget is located in state’s the state’s General Fund – would be vetoed by Governor Corbett. “Those that continue to talk about, we want a severance tax – a true statewide severance tax – I think they are forgetting the reality that we have a governor who has for a year said publically and privately he will veto a tax,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s any merit in either legislative body to be pushing ahead with a severance tax, and delaying this for well over another year.”
And while environmentalists and Democrats think his plan is too small, House Republicans are indicating it’s too large. House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin reacted to the idea: “Does our caucus support it, in that it has 102 Republican votes? No, it does not. But since, looking at where the money is spent, it is clearly not tied to the budget whatsoever. So it is an interesting proposal worthy of further staff evaluation.” If you’re not fluent in legislative-speak, when spokesmen say something like, “we’ll evaluate it” or “we’ll take a look at it,” they probably aren’t too inclined to call the measure to a vote.
Even Scarnati’s partner, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, was lukewarm on the fee, which would not provide funding to counties where drilling isn’t taking place. “My view is that the entire commonwealth needs to benefit from an extraction tax, regardless of whether or not communities have wells or pipelines in their own area,” he said during a brief phone interview.
Where does Corbett stand on the issue? His spokesman, Kevin Harley, told the Post-Gazette, “[the proposal] starts a conversation. The governor is obviously awaiting the findings of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, who is looking at ways to grow the natural gas industry in an economically and environmentally responsible way and one of the things that they will be looking at is an impact fee.” In other words, we’ll get back to you. Scarnati, however, told reporters that when he and Corbett had lunch together this week, the governor effectively gave the measure a “yellow light.”
Grumblings aside, the reality is that of all the fees and taxes proposed, this new measure is the most likely to end up on Corbett’s desk. As one of the Senate’s top Republicans, Scarnati has the power to bring it to a floor vote. His statement that “it ain’t going to be easy” to pass a budget without also passing the fee shows he’s serious about making the bill a priority during the upcoming budget season, when most legislation gets passed into law. While hard-line liberals like Ferlo may vote against it, Democrats representing districts dotted with drilling rigs will likely vote yes. That would probably offset the “no” votes from conservative Republicans who think the measure goes too far.
The fee’s House fate seems a bit murkier. Majority Leader Mike Turzai is very conservative, especially on fiscal issues. He and a good chunk of GOP lawmakers are inclined to oppose any sort of tax or fee increase, no matter where it goes. That being said, public support for a severance tax or fee continues to grow – this week’s Quinnipiac University poll showed 69 percent of Pennsylvanians are in favor of the idea. Moderate Republicans in suburban districts will likely support the fee for that reason. So, in the House, passage could come down to whether Democrats agree with Scarnati’s assessment that this fee is the best they’re going to get, or whether they’ll vote “no” in a philosophical show of support for a broader tax.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Head by State Senator Jim Ferlo, 6 Senate Members spent several hours hearing from natural gas industry executives, public safety officials and environmental advocates.
Ferlo said a primary concern of his is the Commonwealth’s 100 year old legacy of industrial capitalism as well as protecting the lucrative industries in the state such as agriculture, tourism and water.
Among the speakers was Conrad Dan Volz, the outgoing director of The Center for Healthy Environments and Community out of The University of Pittsburgh.
"We are essentially spending billions of dollars as a country to make our infrastructure not hard targets for terrorists. And here we are placing wells that explode, catch on fire and have serious blow-out problems within a stone’s throw from people’s homes," he said.
The meeting was interrupted by about a hundred protesters ranging in age from 5 to 93 years of age. They came from a variety of different groups, mostly teacher’s unions and the Pittsburgh Interfaith Network. They marched for several blocks through Oakland chanting, “Stop the Blasts, Tax Oil Gas!”
Protestors spoke about taxing the natural gas industry and using the money to offset the large financial deficits targeting education in the state budget. This came on the same day that speaking elsewhere, Governor Tom Corbett reportedly suggested universities facing financial problems could drill for natural gas on campuses.
They then opened up the meeting to public comment.
Ferlo has introduced two pieces of legislation concerning Marcellus Shale. One calls for a one year moratorium on expanded drilling and the other would establish higher fees for DEP Violations, improve well-site safety and would establish a severance tax that would return revenue to local communities.
Listen to a longer version of the story here.
The idea comes as institutions of higher education see state funding about to be cut. Corbett's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would reduce aid to colleges and universities by 50 percent.
Corbett says six of the 14 campuses in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are located on the Marcellus Shale formation.
Pellegrino says that bioethics was formed out of three main events, the first being the cultural shift that began in the 1960s away from previously trusted authority figures. He says that this distrust that happened around the time of the Watergate scandal caused the second event, a mistrust of physicians and medical ethics.
The third event was an acceptance of multiculturalism. "And that's all fine, but then again it began to confuse one cultural set of values with the right rules and this fed into the idea of individual determination. 'What's right and wrong is what I say it is, what I say it is, what I believe. And don't tell me anything different and don't argue with me."
Dr. Pellegrino stresses that instead of just accepting the values that one already has, there needs to be discourse and public examination of whether those are right or not. He says that without examination of whether things are actually beneficial to society or a patient there can be no true progress.
Pellegrino says that he sees two possible futures for bioethics. One is where bioethics take the place of Medical ethics. "No matter how highly organized we can be, not matter how technical we can be, how scientific we can be. The human condition of being will and wanting to be helped, cured if possible, at least relieved of pain and suffering will be universal. Don't leave that to this vague notion of bioethics. I'm asking you to leave it to physicians."
The second future would be one which he most likes, one where bioethics and medical ethics can work together. He says that the aim of both types needs to be figuring out how to best look at the human condition of being ill and working in the best interest of people.
Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole says the A.L.A report is not getting a fair measurement of the city as a whole. "It uses reading from one air monitoring site, which happens to be the worst here in Allegheny County. And it uses that reading to represent what air quality is like throughout Allegheny County and the metropolitan area."
Cole says that the county as a whole is within healthy standards. He says they have always known that Liberty (where the A.L.A. monitoring site is located) is the most polluted in the county, but other air monitoring sites have shown much lower levels.
The A.L.A. gave the county an "F" for particle and ozone pollution this year. The Association cited in their report that 51,000 children and about 175,000 adults in the county have asthma. While the cleanest cities in the report were Honolulu, Hawaii and Santa Fe-Espanola, New Mexico.
The bill itself won't be introduced until next week. But Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati has unveiled the outlines of his plan, which would assess a $10,000 annual base fee on every Marcellus Shale well in Pennsylvania. The plan includes multipliers based on production and gas prices, which could increase the levy to more than $20,000 or $30,000 for some wells.
Scarnati's proposal would send more than half of the revenue to counties and townships where drilling is taking place. The rest would go to environmental conservation districts, and to fund environmental cleanup and infrastructure repair projects. Of the money designated for local governments, 36 percent would head to counties hosting Marcellus wells; 37 percent would go to municipalities where drilling is taking place; and 27 percent would be designated for municipalities having no producing sites but located in counties with producing unconventional gas wells.
"This is not a giveaway," said Scarnati. "Even the conservative numbers that we use are well above the estimated severance tax from last year's [Senate Republican severance tax] model."
A spreadsheet distributed by Scarnati's office estimates $121 million in 2011 and retroactive 2010 collections, and $103 in 2012 revenue.
Scarnati is hoping for an early June Senate vote, and passage of the law alongside this year's state budget.
"I cannot see how we can get the budget process done, with all the cuts that are occurring on so many lines, without addressing an impact fee for this industry," he said. "It's not going to solve our budget problem. Not by any sense. But the political pressures that are on legislators because of the cuts starts connecting dots."
Under Scarnati's proposal, the Public Utility Commission would collect and distribute the fee money. That, in his mind, works around Governor Corbett's demand that fee revenue stay out of Pennsylvania's General Fund.
Jan Jarrett of PennFuture isn't too impressed with Scarnati's plan, at first glance. "We need a robust and broad-based tax on the drillers that will protect the local communities, provide funding for environmental cleanup and protection, and benefit all Pennsylvanians for the loss of our natural resources. Senator Scarnati's plan unfortunately fails to provide vitally necessary environmental protection funding, and does little to benefit the average Pennsylvania taxpayer," she said in an emailed statement.
Anticipating criticism, Scarnati said hopes for a broader tax are unrealistic, given the fact Corbett has promised to veto any tax increase. "Those who have been clamoring for a severance tax or impact fee on the issue of issue of the environment, they should be very supportive in fact that we are putting dollars into real cleanup programs. "
Katherine Klaber, the president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, issued the following statement on the proposal: "Our industry understands that, while there are tremendous financial opportunities in Marcellus Shale development, there also can be impacts felt by our host communities. Policy decisions made at the state and local levels of government most certainly have an effect on job creation and the investment of capital needed to develop and maximize the benefits of clean-burning natural gas from the Marcellus. Pennsylvania has the opportunity to create a sustained and highly-competitive environment for growth of this productive industry, with all of the associated benefits for its residents. In order to meet this goal together, any local impact fee on Marcellus production must be clear, straightforward, and competitive. We are open to discussing with the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, and all legislators, proposals that focus on strengthening our partnership with municipal governments, while providing funds to local communities."
The union representatives gathered at the Workers Memorial and expressed fear that today’s politicians are breaking down the workplace safety standards with consistent attacks on collective bargaining agreements. The unions say they rely on these contracts to achieve certain safety standards in the workplace.
Jack Shea, President of the Allegheny County Labor Council AFL-CIO says the Workers Memorial is a yearly reminder that the fight for workers rights rages on.
“You know every year on this date when we come here we mourn for the dead, fight for the living and we will continue to fight until one day we won’t have to come here anymore,” Shea says.
Frank Snyder, Secretary Treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO also spoke at the event. He says the number of work-related deaths is more than the common person may realize.
“Think about this: Every day in this country 149 workers lose their lives as a result of their workplaces, 12 will die from injuries and 137 from diseases. Every day,” Snyder says.
According to the AFL-CIO, 166 workeRS in Pennsylvania were killed on the job in 2009.
Michael Sexauer, Director of Advancement at the Conservancy, says after the accident the children's mother, Amy Ambrusko, and loved ones started to put together money and support to build a treehouse in memory of the two.
He says that when they came to the conservancy with the idea they thought it would be a great way to start redeveloping a play space system. "What we want to do is use this idea of a treehouse; interpret that with a design team into a learning space that will be accessible to everyone, that would be safe. and that would be in keeping with environmental education."
Sexauer says that for the meeting they have recruited kids to come and design what they believe to be the perfect treehouse. He says that they will be provided with craft supplies and then designers will build a plan around what the kids made.
The Conservancy will hold two other meetings in June and July to incorporate visits to the site and presentation of preliminary designs. Construction will start on the site in fall 2011 and end in spring 2012.
“We acknowledge the success of existing Propel schools and support schools that provide quality options for Pittsburgh families,” said Superintendent Linda Lane, Ed.D.
The Board originally rejected the proposal in February but Lane says Propel's renewed application shows a comprehensive curriculum and plan to meet the needs of all students.
The new charter, which will serve students in grades K-8, is scheduled to open this fall with grades K-4.
The 80-year-old physician resigned as Medical Examiner in January 2006 after he was indicted on federal corruption charges involving misuse of his staff and county assets. Wecht's 2008 trial ended with a deadlocked jury, and prosecutors dropped the charges months later.
Wecht gained fame by inquiring into the deaths of well-known figures including Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey and Vincent Foster.
Dr. Karl Williams currently holds the Medical Examiner position but his five-year term expired in December. That means he is technically “acting” Examiner. County Executive Dan Onorato says there is no question that Wecht is qualified for the job and he understands Wecht’s arguments for why he should be reappointed. “He and his family have been through over the last couple of years… that is now behind him,” says Onorato.
However, the County Executive says he is not ready to make an appointment today. “There are a lot of other things that are in play right now,” says Onorato. Among the things mentioned by Onorato is the ongoing County Executive’s race. Onorato would not go so far as to say he will put off the decision long enough to allow the next County Executive to make the choice.
"Everything from pills ointments and creams. We are also accepting both controlled and non-controlled substances. So, when we talk about controlled substances we are talking about prescription pharmaceuticals things like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Demerol, so any of the narcotic-type prescription medications. All of those will be accepted."
He also notes that flushing medications is dangerous because the wastewater system is not meant to digest prescription compounds, meaning that they could end up in the water system. Also, throwing them in the trash can make it easier for the drugs to get into the wrong hands, or damage the environment by being in a land fill. Since prescription drug abuse is more of a recent epidemic, Mazza says that there is no safe way to dispose of medications other than attending semi-annual Drug Take Back event. From the event, dropped-off medications will safely be incinerated.
Mazza says that individuals can drive-through, but suggests blacking-out personal and doctor information on the label before dropping the medications off at the event.
Mazza says that there are 133 collection sites in Western Pennsylvania. To find a site near you, visit www.dea.gov
55 percent of the voters Quinnipiac surveyed think Pennsylvania’s $4.2 billion deficit should be balanced with cuts, not tax increases; but 52 percent disapprove of Corbett’s budget plan that does just that, and more than half say the budget isn’t fair to people like them. Assistant Polling Director Peter Brown sorted out the discrepancies. “People want spending cuts over tax increases, but when you confront them with specifics, they’re less supportive of those cuts,” he said.
Corbett’s approval rating stayed where it was two months ago, at 39 percent. But the number of people who disapprove of his job performance has grown from 11 to 37 percent, with about a quarter of voters undecided. “It’s not unreasonable to look at Corbett’s 39 percent approval, 37 percent job disapproval, and look at that as the base of the two parties,” said Brown. “I mean, it’s not exact, but it’s very similar. And the undecideds are all what we’d call swing voters.” Indeed, 64 percent of Republicans approve of Corbett’s job performance, while 55 percent of Democrats disapprove.
Brown said a bright spot for Corbett is the fact he’s more popular than Ohio and Florida’s freshman Republican governors. “Corbett has not yet, to the extent that some of the other Republican governors facing similar problems, alienated the middle, as has happened in some other states,” he said.
But, in fact, Corbett did ask Chesapeake Energy’s representative to step down from the commission for just that reason.
When Corbett’s office announced the commission on March 8th, Chesapeake vice president Dave Spigelmyer was listed as one of its 30 members. According to four sources, Corbett asked him to withdraw from the panel after a February fire at a Chesapeake drilling site in Washington County injured three workers. Corbett advisers were worried the company’s violations would become a distraction, as the commission debates drilling policy.
Chesapeake, which currently operates 105 Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania, racked up 132 violations in 2010, according to the Clean Water Action report. Last week, one of its Bradford County wells leaked tens of thousands of gallons of fracking fluid. The company has voluntarily halted hydraulic fracturing and other well completion activities at its Pennsylvania sites while it investigates the cause of the spill.
Chesapeake spokesman Matt Sheppard disputes the account of the people Pennsylvania Public Radio spoke with, who come from both inside and out of state government, emailing, “[Spigelmyer] stepped aside from the Marcellus Commission prior to the first meeting to focus on Chesapeake operations and his duties as vice chair of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.” Corbett’s office did not return calls for comment.
People who fail the first drug test would be given another chance for benefits if they undergo treatment, but failure of the second test denies applicants assistance for a year.
One-fifth of current welfare recipients would also be randomly selected for the tests every six months.
Representative Garth Everett of Lycoming County is the bill’s prime sponsor. In a news release, Everett said taxpayers shouldn’t be “paying for illegal drugs for individuals receiving state welfare benefits.”
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Legislative Director Andy Hoover says the legislation “plays into stereotypes” and offers a punitive approach to drug abuse. Hoover adds that doing a drug test is a search.
“So if the government wants to do a search, they have to have suspicion that the person committed a crime of some sort, and this is blanket drug testing of a certain group of people,” says Hoover.
The bill is one of several Republican welfare reform measures recently passed by the House. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Democratic Senator Jim Ferlo says the legislature wasn't told about the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board pilot program, even during lengthy discussions about modernizing the state store system.
Ferlo and Republican Senator John Pippy co-chair the committee that oversees the Liquor Code. Both disagree with the proposal.
Ferlo says now is not the time for this plan, since wine kiosks are producing weak sales and the LCB itself is under pressure.
"We know the governor and many in the House, the Republican majority, are pushing the complete elimination of the state store system, which to me is financially foolhardy," says Ferlo. "We have a great state store system which generates hundreds of millions of dollars back to the state government, and we have a controlled system."
Ferlo says while wine is appropriate in a grocery store setting, liquor is not. He says he's also concerned about minors gaining access to hard liquor through this plan.
The Allegheny County Democrat says the idea to put liquor at kiosks should first be vetted through the legislature and the public before being implemented. The pilot program would launch in a few months.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Six business and entrepreneurship groups have been invited to present at the “Startup America” roundtable to be held at Chatham University. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development has built three general areas of focus it is calling the “Pittsburgh Principles.” Those principles are to “bring great ideas to market faster,” “improve access to capital”, ad “build the next generation.”
Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse President and CEO John Manzetti says on the “improving access to capital” front he will suggest that the administration put more money into the Small Business Innovation Research Program. “To be able to provide non-dilutive capital for early stage companies and entrepreneurs trying to get their technology developed,” says Manzetti, “Then those companies can get the technology developed and they can come to organizations like the Life Sciences Greenhouse and others and get additional capital and get support to get their products to market.”
The group of six organizations is also planning to push for new rules that make patenting a new technology easier. Manzetti says models in Europe are often better than the system in the United States.
Audrey Russo runs the Pittsburgh Technology Council. She will be among those at the roundtable. She says if she gets a chance to speak she will try to focus the administration on the issue of building the region’s pool of entrepreneurs through changes in immigration laws. Specifically she says she will push or a “Startup” visa. A bill making its way through congress would allow foreign students to stay in the United States after graduation and earn a green card if they can round up at least $100,000 in capital investments and create at least five jobs in two years.
Russo says the visa would be a boon for Pittsburgh with all of its universities. Most international students have to leave the country to launch a business. That has prompted some to say we are creating our own international competition. Russo says the visa would not take away jobs from Americans and it would not negatively impact the tax base.
Pittsburgh is one of eight cities hosting a “Startup America” roundtable. The others are: Durham, NC, Austin, TX, Boston, MA, Minneapolis, MN, Atlanta, GA, Boulder, CO, and the Silicon Valley region of California. Regional boosters say Pittsburghers should be proud to have been included on the list. Audrey Russo takes a slightly different approach, “We have a very diverse economy, we have a strong epicenter of international corporations, and then we have what people say is the real, true, work ethic and grit. You add that all up and have the icing of technology and innovation, we better well should have been selected as one of the top eight cities in the US.”
Frankel says that in the 21st century, such discrimination is unthinkable.
“Did you know that you can be fired for being gay in Pennsylvania? Did you know that a landlord can evict you for being gay in Pennsylvania? This is an embarrassment, this is a disgrace, and most importantly we cannot continue to tolerate or sanction discrimination in the state of Pennsylvania,” Frankel says.
In addition to Rep. Frankel’s bill in the House, State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) also brought forward a similar bill in the Senate. The two joined together with other lawmakers to present a case for protection of LGBT citizens who face discrimination in employment and housing.
Both bills would add gender orientation and sexual identity to ethnicity, race, gender, age, etc. as things that cannot be discriminated against when looking for a home, acquiring credit, or applying for a job.
State Rep. Eugene Depasquale (D-York) spoke at the State Capitol where the bill will be introduced and says all people should hold equal rights that cannot be infringed upon.
“If someone is working hard, doing their job. Or if they are living in their apartment or a house, they should not be under threat of eviction or losing their home or losing their job because of sexual preference. That is simply un-American,” Depasquale says.
Farnese says an economic benefit can come from such legislation as Pennsylvania will be recognized as an open, accepting state where people will want to live.
The state Department of Revenue is responsible for enforcing the tax. Pittsburgh School District Solicitor Ira Weiss says some transactions are exempt from the transfer tax, but so far it looks like it should be paid, so they're asking the state to look into it. Apparently the tax is required if a new owner is recorded on the deed, which has not happened.
The U.S. Steel Tower is at 600 Grant Street and is now topped by the logo of UPMC, the largest tenant. Other major tenants are U.S. Steel and PNC Bank.
Ground was officially broken this morning for the 36-thousand square foot Heldman Plaza on Center Ave across from the Hill House. When it opens in November its main tenant will be a full service Shop ‘n Save grocery.
Some politicians have described the neighborhood as a “food desert.” Residents either have to travel to other parts of the city to get groceries or shop at expensive convenience stores. Despite the physical size of the potential market, time after time investors and developers have investigated and passed on opportunities to open a grocery store in the Hill.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Daniel Lavelle says it took a partnership to get to this point and there will need to be a new kind a partnership moving forward. “I want to stress to you that once this Shop ‘n Save is built, that we, the community, are going to vigorously shop at Shop ‘n Save,” said Lavelle.
State Representative Jake Wheatley echoed Lavelle’s thoughts, “Rise or fall, this will be ours. We need to take ownership of it. We need to honor it because this store is symbolic of our community and how we treat it and how we let others treat it is an example of what we will take from us.”
Funding for the building comes from federal and local government grants, the Penguins and various local foundations. A $1.5 million commercial loan was secured this morning to finish off the financing.
Shop ‘n Save owner and operator Jeff Ross says the Hill is a very different place than it was in the past and he is confident that with community support he will be able to keep the store open.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Alanna McGovern says the current on the Ohio River broke some of the wires connecting the barges to a towing vessel this morning. "the current then took the four barges down to the back channel of Neville Island when they came to rest on the railroad bridge."
Of the three other barges that broke loose this morning, one carrying steel coils sank, another carrying coal passed by and an empty barge is also stuck.
McGovern says that the barge has a double hull and does not appear to have been breached. She says that the coast Guard is working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety to free the barges.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato says this bodes well for the future of a military presenece in Southwest Pennsylvania. "Well the fact that we are one of the few on the BRAC report (The Defense BASE Closure and Realignment Commission)to get put back on shows the significance of the strategic importance of Southwest Pennsylvania, plus the men and women that serve in the military here."
Congressman Tim Murphy (R-18 PA) says that a new commissary is needed because the old one is an antique. "It is 50 something years old, it has many signs of wear and tear and it needs to be replaced in a more convenient location. In part because that base is going to close in the next couple of years and when it closes down we lose that base. A couple of years ago, I asked the Pentagon to please keep that commissary open at least until we build a new one, and they agreed to."
Murphy says that while the county is now announcing that it will take bids, they still have to get approval from the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says that once it passes, the county can legally start bids 30 days after.
The U.S. Army Office of Personnel and Readiness agreed to keep operating the current commissary in Oakdale until the new one can take on its duties. Currently, about 165,000 people rely on the commissary.
Four barges broke away from a tow boat early this morning on the Ohio River as they were preparing to enter the Emsworth Lock. The barges then became caught up on a CSX Railroad Bridge between Neville Island and Stowe Township.
Officials on site told the Post-Gazette that one of the barges contained benzene and because of potential danger the nearby Fleming Park Bridge was closed. However, the Coast Guard says there are no signs of damage to any of the barges nor the railroad bridge.
David Sternberg told WDUQ News this morning that Chesapeake Energy has told the agency that they overnighted a CD with the information that was requested. The EPA had wanted the information by yesterday but Sternberg says even though they haven't received the data yet, the agency considers the company "to be in compliance" with the request.
Clay Mankamyer, Vice President of the Flight 93 Garden, says Sue Casey and Michael Mitchell came up with the idea.
Sue Casey founded Remember Me Roses in the wake of the September 11th attacks as a way of paying tribute to those who died.and has since worked to plant gardens in Washington D.C., New York City, and Shanksville.
Michael Mitchell is a New Jersey/New York Area professional gardener. According to Mankaymer, Mitchell "was stranded on one of the bridges leading out of the city (on September 11th) and watched the collapse of the Twin Towers. And he just felt that he needed to be involved in some way to help with the recovery and the healing of the nation, and paying tribute to those who lost their lives." Mitchell used his experience as a professional gardener to oversee the development of the gardens.
Mankaymer says they have already started work on the property by clearing the land and planting roses and hedgerows. He says that once the garden is finished it will be shaped like a compass rose.
E.P.A. spokesman David Sternberg said as of 4 p.m. yesterday, the company had not provided the EPA with the requested information about the fracking fluids used in the drilling process; the water, land and air affected by the release; and, any private well, surface water and soil sampling data collected before and after the April 19 incident.
Sternberg said the company indicated it would provide the data...."We will evaluate this information promptly in consultation with the PA-DEP (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) and take whatever action is needed to protect public health and the environment."
Sternberg says the agency has directed Chesapeake to provide more extensive information by May 9th regarding the timeline of the incident, source of the discharge, substances placed into or returned from the wells at the site; whether radiological compounds were present in the fracking water or sediment; effects on drinking water supplies; any other leaks, spills or releases at the site; each chemical brought to the site; and, any wastewater storage at the site.
And if the company doesn't comply by May 9th? "It would be premature to comment on potential violations and the potential of future enforcement actions. As a matter of policy, we don't comment on potential enforcement matters until they're filed or initiated."
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati said he'll release an outline of an impact fee but not an actual bill -- on a Thursday morning conference call.
"It will be, the broad parameters of what we're looking at, and certainly trying to answer as many specific answers as we can. We're obviously putting it out for feedback. It's not a bill. It's a proposal and a concept at this point. Why not introduce the bill itself this week? The purpose of it is, basically, to get input and feedback before we put it in bill form. A lot of moving parts to it," Scarnati reasoned.
The fee would reimburse local governments for increased services and infrastructure repairs caused by natural gas drilling. Senate Republicans also want the fee to fund environmental cleanup efforts, even though Governor Corbett is leery of anything beyond impact payments to municipalities and counties.
The bill may not win support of environmentally-friendly Democrats, despite the fact the broader severance tax they'd prefer will likely never come to a vote in the Republican-controlled House or Senate.
"No," said Allegheny County Senator Jim Ferlo, when asked whether he would vote for an impact fee. "Because the issue, it should be some level of statewide uniformity. The state should be collecting it. The industry should have a common obligation or responsibility across the state. Our proposal is that it be a statewide, uniform collection. And it has to be something greater than the minimal, minimalist approach that Senator Scarnati and others have."
Scarnati is hoping to pass the bill alongside the state budget in May or June.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Council heard testimony from relatives and friends of gun violence victims, from shootings 27 years ago or just last year.
Many of the speakers asked Council to support more youth centers and mentoring programs that would keep the city’s young people away from bad influences. More gun control was also proposed.
Valerie Dixon, whose son Rob was shot and killed 10 years ago, says she also attended the funeral of three Pittsburgh Police officers shot and killed in April of 2009.
“I cried like it was my son’s funeral. It hurt just as much as my son’s funeral to see the deaths of those three officers. But until you care about our kids like you care about those three officers, nothing will be done in this city,” says Dixon.
Kirk Holbrook of Homewood says while commercial developments like the East Liberty Target are meant to create jobs, that approach isn’t working to keep kids off the streets. He says the city should focus on community centers in poor neighborhoods instead.
Councilman Ricky Burgess requested that April 26 be named “A Day of Remembrance” of gun violence victims.
The governor spoke to an oil and gas seminar sponsored by the K&L Gates law firm where nearly 400 drilling industry representatives and supporters had gathered. While the governor did reiterate his position that he will not sign a severance tax he also told the group gathered in a hotel ballroom in Green Tree that he would not sign a forced pooling law. “I do not believe in private eminent domain and forced pooling would be exactly that,” said Corbett.
Forced pooling laws allow companies to compel a landowner to lease their mineral rights if enough of their neighbors sign on with a driller. Some other gas and oil producing states have forced pooling legislation on the books. Corbett says trying to avoid such a law in Pennsylvania is one of the reasons why he will not support a severance tax. “When people talk to me about the tax they say, ‘Well even the companies want a tax.’ They never add the caveat that I know that many of the companies that have gone to Harrisburg have said, ‘Yeah we’ll take the tax if we get certain things and regulations including the forced pooling.’”
At the same event Corbett told the crowd that he would do everything in his power to protect the state’s environment, including pulling drilling permits if he thinks companies are not respecting water resources. “Fair warning, I will not hesitate to use it if I do not see an effort to protect the environment of Pennsylvania and the water of Pennsylvania,” said Corbett, “I know how to get your attention… I know how to get the attention of your CEO’s.”
The governor also used the forum to call on everyone involved in the debate over shale drilling to not fall back on emotion and hearsay but to rely on facts and science. He also tried to set aside efforts by those who would like to see a moratorium on drilling who argue that the gas is not going away. He agreed it was not going anywhere but then opined that the state needs the jobs today, not decades from now after the energy companies have tapped out Ohio and West Virginia’s shale resources.
The report says the county's operating fund expenditures grew by 15 million last year mostly due to debt service, personnel costs and more money to subsidize child welfare services. He said he had a three part plan for correcting the county's budget problems 1- Being more realistic in making revenue projections 2- expenditures should match actual revenues and 3- cost controls have to be strictly enforced throughout the year to keep expenses in line with the approved budget.
Flaherty, who is running for county executive says county officials have been mortgaging the future by using capital funds and one-time revenue sources to pay for current expenses.
He says the county has been using capital reimbursements to pay for items and that it is not a sustainable way to make ends meet.
State Representative John Galloway (D-Bucks) and other state legislators are urging Governor Tom Corbett to sign an executive order that would implement the E-Verify program that ensures state workers are legal citizens.
A bill authored by Galloway has sat in the legislature for some time now, mostly being held up in the Senate after overwhelming bipartisan support in the House. Representative Eugene Depasquale (D-York) says the legislature has been too slow.
“With the budget being such a primary focus of the legislature we need this executive order now. So many bills were being told, ‘Well we’re going to have to wait for the fall to deal with that, we’ve got to get through the budget.’ Well, Pennsylvania workers can’t just wait until the fall, they need this executive order now so the middle class recovery can begin in Pennsylvania.”
Galloway’s bill would not only require the verification of current and prospective state agency employees but in addition, it would require any state contracted worker to be eligible for employment through E-Verify.
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state of Pennsylvania has over 140,000 employees. We have every right to expect that these are legal American workers,” Galloway says.
The E-Verify system is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was recently adopted by executive order in Florida. An executive order would bypass legislative approval, but can be overturned by the next governor more easily than legislative statute. Virginia and Idaho also use the E-Verify system.
Drew Crompton, the chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, said the caucus is drafting the bill from scratch, rather than re-writing last year's severance tax proposals.
"That requires significant data runs and analysis, as it relates to the number of wells, the number of active wells, the number of permitted wells across the Commonwealth. So that work, as well as the legislative drafting work, has been ongoing for weeks. We hope we have a product by the end of the week."
It's not clear how Senate Republicans would assess the fee. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania is calling for a flat levy for each wellhead. The group's executive director, Doug Hill, said county officials should be given flexibility on how to use the revenue, arguing drilling's impact goes far beyond infrastructure wear and tear.
"Counties are dealing with things like increasing the planning requirements for our emergency management systems. Doing addressing, so we can respond properly if there is an emergency at one of the sites. Even doing exercises so we can properly train our county staff and our volunteers to do those responses. We've also seen impacts on things as diverse as land use, records management, human services, even some touches on the criminal justice system."
Governor Corbett has said he's open to an impact fee, but wants to wait for input from his Marcellus Shale Commission before moving forward. He stayed vague on Monday, when asked about the Senate GOP's new timeline.
"Obviously whenever they introduce legislation, we always take a look to see what the legislation is. I think the first question is, what is an impact? Is it more than just the trucks? Which I think it is more than just the trucks. And where the money would go."
The EPA says the state is in the lead in responding to this incident but the federal agency wants by the end of today information on the chemically-treated water used in the drilling process; the effect on water, land and air by the release; and any private well, surface water and soil sampling data collected in the area before and after the April 19 incident.
“We want a complete accounting of operations at the site to determine our next steps in this incident and to help prevent future releases of this kind,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin.
According to Garvin, Chesapeake has until May 9 to provide extensive details about the incident:
• Timelines, sources of discharge and the extent of environmental impact
• Substances placed into or returned to the surface from the wells at the site
• Whether radiological compounds are or were present in the fluids or sediment generated
• Results of any subsequent sampling data
• Effects on any drinking water supplies
• All permits or water quality standards that may have been violated
• Any other leaks, spills or releases that have occurred at wells on the drilling site
• The history of drilling operations at the well site
• Each chemical brought to the site, including type and quantities and storage, management and handling practices
• Any temporary wastewater storage impoundments on the site
• Processing of wastewater from wells at the site
Monday, April 25, 2011
At the Monday afternoon bill signing, Corbett said the old legislation didn’t make sense. “Whether or not new homes are equipped with sprinklers, I believe should be a decision left up to the individual consumers, not to the government,” he said. “While there are arguments on both sides of this issue, as I said before, I believe it’s the decision of the individual consumer.” The governor pointed out smoke detectors are still required in every home, and that “builders still must offer buyers the option to install an automatic fire sprinkler system, provide buyers with information explaining the initial and ongoing cost of such a system, and furnish buyers with information on the possible benefits of information of an automatic sprinkler system.”
Firefighters unions supported the mandate, arguing requiring sprinklers in houses would help keep more blazes under control.
The new law also makes broader changes to Pennsylvania’s construction codes. Going forward, the commonwealth will no longer automatically adopt recommendations put forward by the International Code Council, which authored the sprinkler mandate in 2009. Additionally, Pennsylvania’s 19-member Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council will need a two-thirds vote to approve new building requirements. Some environmental advocates are worried the supermajority threshold will make it more difficult to write energy efficiency mandates and other “green” requirements into codes.
The 47 year old from Russia was the last of 6 defendants to be sentenced. Litt faces 56 months in jail followed by three years on supervised release. U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton says Litt will face an immigration status hearing after his release.
Hickton says Litt and his co-conspirators would hire out the workers to restaurants and hotels for ten dollars an hour and then pay the workers six dollars an hour. On top of that, those who were here illegally would be housed in cramped quarters and forced to pay rent to the company. They were also forced to pay for transportation to and from work in company owned vans.
Hickton says during peak seasons the workers in Pittsburgh and Ohio would work for 20 hours a day but never see any overtime. “The significance of this case lies in the fact that recruitment and exploitation of cheap alien labor occurs daily around the country,” says Hickton
Hickton says the majority of the workers were “out-of-status” aliens. Most came here legally, however many of their visas had expired. Others were here under visas that did not allow them to work. At least 53 of the more than 100 workers involved in the case have been deported. Most were from former Soviet block countries.
As part of their collective sentences the defendants were forced to pay $2.5 million in forfeitures to the federal government.
No identities have been released.
Jamie Campolongo, President and CEO of Pittsburgh Transportation Group, the parent company of Yellow Cab, issued a statement saying they are trying to get full details.
"Our staff will fully cooperate with Pittsburgh Police to determine exactly what happened. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved and their families."
The hearing in Pittsburgh was convened by State Auditor General Jack Wagner who contends the state legislature and the governor are diverting the $370 million annual payment to Pennsylvania without getting the proper public input. When the fund was first established in 2001, Governor Tom Ridge and the state legislature held public hearings and decided to dedicate all of the funds to health related issues. Percentages were laid out FOR health care, cancer research, senior care, tobacco use cessation efforts and to build a public health endowment fund. In recent years the state legislature has been diverting those funds to the general fund and non-health related causes. A large portion this year will go to an economic development loan fund.
The shift was brought into the spotlight when funding for the adultBasic program was cut. Wagner wants lawmakers to either be put back the funds or hold public hearings on the reallocation. “We again want a public discussion, because your opinion has always been important in terms of the use of public money,” said Wagner.
Last week the state received $370 million from the tobacco settlement fund. Over the next 15 years the payments will slip to an estimated $355 million a year.
About 40,000 Pennsylvanians lost their low cost healthcare in January when the adultBasic program was ended. The state continues to offer the Special Care program but recipients complain it comes with higher costs and fewer benefits. Former adultBasic recipient Cynthia Brazen of Overbrook is 53-years old and has been fighting diabetes for more than 40 years. “I am a responsible citizen, tax paying, working home owner,” said Brazen, “I have checked my options and I have none, therefore I will rely on the charity of doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and, of course, soon the state of Pennsylvania.” Brazen believes that if she does not get the treatment she needs she will go blind due to complications from her diabetes and will be forced to go on welfare.
Nick Balandiat says he has a hereditary blood condition that requires frequent lab tests and trips to the doctor. After losing adult Basic he bought into Special Care but says he is worried about the limits on office visits and a cap on spending on lab fees. “I just want insurance that is decent that I can afford,” Balandiat told the Auditor General.
Catholic Charities downtown says it has seen a 25% increase in the number of calls it gets from individuals trying to find out if they are eligible for the group’s free health care. They have also seen a 10% increase since January in people coming through their doors for treatment. The Consumer Health Coalition is reporting similar increase in calls for help in finding free and low cost care. “There is no worse job right now than to work on our help line,” said Coalition Executive Director Beth Heeb, “nine times out of ten they can’t help [the caller].” Heeb says the best they can do is send the caller to an already overwhelmed clinic.
United Way of Allegheny County Executive Director Bob Nelkin went before Wagner to express his belief that funding for tobacco use cessation programs must be restored if not increased. When the tobacco fund was first approved more than $51 went to those programs, now, that number is down to $14 million. Nelkin says the money should be seen as an investment in the future that will, “pay off in a big, big way for Pennsylvania taxpayers, and people paying health care premiums.” Nelkin says a recent study by the CDC shows Pennsylvanians spend more than 5 billion dollars a year on tobacco related illnesses.
"The basic qualification other than being a Somerset County resident, is to fall into a low-income category."
The fund is allocated to each county in Pennsylvania for human services. That money in Somerset provides transportation for low income individuals ages 18-59 to ride to grocery stores and other necessary trips. Instead of a mass transit system, the county has a shared ride system which relies on the Human Services Fund to offer the free commuting operation.
Some commutes will still be available through other funding outlets such as Act 44, so rides for those 60 and older in Somerset county along with those who need rides to medical appointments will not be affected.
"It's only for those low income individuals that don't fit into that category, but need that necessary transportation to get to things other than a doctor's appointment, which everyone needs to do," Masterson says.
The budget is only a proposal, so Masterson has lobbied to lawmakers, but did not get a satisfying reaction.
"We were provided with the comment that everybody has to tighten their belt, and my comment was, well, there is no belt left to tighten, it's gone. These folks have absolutely no other resources in this rural area to get where they need to go," he says.
The Education Action Group has compiled a database of teacher contracts of 481 school districts in the state of Pennsylvania. These contracts, gathered through public record and Freedom of Information Act requests, outline the provisions included in collectively-bargained teacher contracts.
Kyle Olsen, CEO of the Education Action Group, says the organization brought together these contracts into one place so taxpayers could see how oftentimes more than 80 percent of public education funding goes to labor costs.
To Olsen, the database is an important resource as taxpayers consider ways to close Pennsylvania’s $4 billion budget gap.
“We’re trying to peel back the layers of public school spending to show taxpayers exactly where their dollars are going because the reality is 80 to 85 percent of every dollar that is spent in public schools is contained in that contract,” he says. “So what we’re urging people to do is take a look at those and start asking questions to figure where their dollars are going.”
Olsen stresses that things like annual raise for teachers regardless of performance, lavish health insurance, and an uncapped amount of sick days are all “wasteful provisions” in contracts that could dramatically reduce the cost if eliminated. Olsen says he doesn’t want to label teachers as the bad guys.
“We’re not making an assertion that teachers are paid to much. All we’re saying is these are the ways teachers are being paid and as school districts are looking to make cuts and asking for concessions and scaling back and all of those types of things, would it make sense to look at those different types of provisions that have zero impact on student learning?”
The group hopes to gather the remaining 72 contracts of the state’s 500 school districts and post them along with the others. The contracts are available online.
Last session, nearly 200 House members voted for a measure making talking or texting while driving a primary offense. That means police could pull a driver over for using a hand-held cell phone, and nothing else.
However, this measure limits the penalty for distracted driving to a secondary offense. That isn’t enough for Democrat Eugene DePasquale of York County, who’s been pushing the issue for years. “If a secondary law happens, it’s not as if that’s bad. It’s just not as good as I think it could be,” he said. “And the reason why is, a primary law will enable someone – a police officer – to pull someone over for doing it, which could prevent the tragedy. As opposed to fining someone after the tragedy.”
Republican Chris Ross, who authored the new legislation, argued the primary vs. secondary debate is meaningless, and that lawmakers need to just make cell phone use while driving illegal, to start changing drivers’ habits. “It’s not good enough just to make it legislated,” he testified. “We have to actually get a change in behavior. And people’s behavior doesn’t change merely because we pass a law up here. It changes because you first say, this is wrong. We’re making it illegal. And then you follow that up with an aggressive campaign.”
The new measure goes beyond cell phones, increasing already-existing distracted driving fines by $50 if a driver is using “any electronic, electrical, mechanical, personal grooming device, food, drink, book or printed material.”
Investigator Amanda Johnson says prisoners protesting mistreatment in September 2010 were sprayed with excessive amounts of chemicals, then left in their cells for days without showers or medical treatment and the spray burning their skin. One prisoner says he returned his tray and utensils through the food slot after a meal, as rules require, but a guard threw the spoon back into the cell and wrote up a misconduct charge.
Johnson says the misuse of restraint chairs amounts to torture, with prisoners strapped naked into the chairs where they may be left untended for 12 to 15 hours at a time and forced to soil themselves.
Prisoners' grievances are dismissed 98% of the time, according to Johnson, who got the statistics from a "right to know" request, but a group of nine prisoners protesting an assault last week got more more positive results: the victim received medical treatment and the two guards accused of assault were removed from the unit.
Johnson wants the abuse to stop; wants the prison administration to acknowledge what's happening there; wants lawyers to help prisoners file class action lawsuits against their abuse; and she hopes more people will be concerned about human rights.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Joseph Rost, head of the McKeesport Municipal Authority says that their current system has been in place since 1976 and needs an upgrade. "When it rains heavy, what can't come down to our plant is permitted to go...directly into the river." Right now, the system can only handle 11.5 million gallons of water a day, so there are sewage and stormwater overflows going into the rivers. "Rather than separate all of the lines in the city sanitary sewers and storm sewers, it would be more cost effective to bring all of the flow down to the facility for treatment. In order to do that, we need to expand and be able to handle peak flows of up to 56 million gallons a day," says Rost. They plan on building four sequential batch reactors - each of which can treat up to nine million gallons of water a day. They are also anticipating treating the sewage water with ultraviolet light instead of chlorine. In addition, they are getting rid of their primary treatment units and replacing them with aerobic digestors to fully stabilize sludge before it goes into land fills.
McKeesport is not the only place in the county that is receiving money. Brackenridge Borough acquired a $3.6 million grant to rehabilitate about seven miles of sewer lines and manholes, and Etna Borough received a $550,220 loan to eliminate wet weather discharges from going into Pine Creek which empties into the Allegheny River.
Most private treatment plants capable of removing inorganic matter are in central PA, in the Susquehanna and Delaware river basins, where water usage is rigidly controlled and even prohibited during low flow periods, according to Hugh Archer, President of Mavickar Environmental Consultants. Drillers in Western PA, where water is more abundant, have been able to just dilute much of their frack water and re-use it. Archer says there may not be enough private treatment plants up and running right now to deal with an increased volume.
Archer expects the water treatment industry to move toward wellhead treatment to reduce transportation costs. He says a process demonstrated in Fayette County a year ago by Integrated Water Technologies truly recycled fracking water into a clean water distillate and three commercial salt products.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, state workers were told to stay home, come in late or go home early, since the Capitol’s water system was down for the count. The employees who stayed had to use port-o-potties, and were told to bring their own bottled water to work.
House Democratic staffer Bob Caton estimated about 15 percent of legislative employees toughed it out. “I’m an NFL season ticket holder,” he said. “I’m used to peeing in port-o-johns. What I really felt bad for, though, there were so many school groups that were coming to the Capitol. And for these school kids, this is one of the biggest days of the year. Not only do you get out of class, but you get to see this amazing Capitol building. You get to go and do all kinds of cool tours. And those tours were kind of thrown off a little bit, and you had elementary school students waiting in long lines to use the port-o-johns at the back of the Capitol.” Many schools cancelled their tours altogether.
Release after release from the governor’s office said “nonessential workers” were being asked to leave. Who made the cut for essential? Office of Administration spokesman Dan Egan explained “essential” employees typically held health and safety-related jobs. “So for the complex, that would include Capitol police, security, building maintenance and sanitation workers. A lot of the managers had to stay on, as well. They were considered essential,” he said.
In a statement, Governor Corbett thanked state employees who worked through the hassle. “This week’s experience, while challenging, demonstrated that our contingency plans worked as designed,” he said. “Although some central offices were closed, the administration did not shut down and government operations statewide continued – just as taxpayers would expect. …Administration-wide, essential employees reported to work every day and many other employees continued to work remotely.
Harrisburg remains under a boil water advisory through Friday.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Meantime, Chesapeake Energy is shutting down “completion operations” at its Pennsylvania sites until the company figures out what caused Tuesday’s accident. That includes all hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Dan Spadoni says a Texas company called “Boots and Coots” is leading the cleanup effort.
"They have set up a mechanical system so that they can pump what’s called lost circulation material into the well to plug the leak. They would then pump heavy mud into the well, and they are hopeful the combination will effectively seal the well."
Spadoni says test results on impact of the spill are not complete, but a field check did not show any negative effect on the Susquehanna...
"We have not seen evidence of a fish kill. Obviously the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission was notified, and they have been on the scene as well."
Emergency officials initially thought they had capped the leak Wednesday evening, but Spadoni says about a gallon of fracking fluid is still leaking every minute.
Chesapeake Energy says a “limited” amount of natural gas has escaped, as well.
At least two families have been displaced by the spill.
There are no reports of injuries. Officials at the scene believe the fire, which broke out around 12:30 p.m., might be related to welding work that was being done on the building's roof.
The $47 million reconstruction of the high school was scheduled to be completed in time for the 2011-12 school year. At this time, it is too early to tell how the fire will affect that timetable.
During the current school year, classes for the high school students are being held at the David Williams Middle School while the renovations are being made.
Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith says that Marcellus Shale drilling is a state-wide issue that has a close-to-home impact.
"It points out that the drilling development does have a significant impact on communities and the environment and we need to ensure that at the state level they're taking this stuff into consideration. The fact that there's such an impact on local communities needs to be addressed."
Since the leak, Smith says that a command center has been set up in the Leroy Township Community Building to manage communications to public emergency personnel. He also mentioned that well control specialists from out of state were brought in to address the issue by building secondary containment mechanisms to prevent the leaking fluid from getting into the nearby creek.
Smith says that no liquid has leaked into the area's water to his knowledge.
The national drop-out rate is between 30 to 50 percent. The numbers are reflected in Pittsburgh schools. "In other school districts in Allegheny County the numbers vary widely- some have 1 to 2 percent dropout rate but mostly it hovers around 18 to 20 percent," said Nicole Molinaro, Executive Director of Communities in Schools, quoting a 2006 RAND Corporation study.
After their giant brainstorming session last year, they came up with a plan to help students graduate which consists of immediate intervention, to help students who are on the verge of graduating but are missing a few credits or have had to take some time off. "Oftentimes they need some adult guidance, but the schools are so overburdened that the guidance doesn't happen," said Molinaro. They are specifically working with about 70 students at different local high schools. They are also employing peer mentors, working on policy development issues and working on early intervention.
"Dropping out is a long process, it doesn't just happen overnight," said Molinaro, "Oftentimes if a student can't read by 3rd grade, they start the disengagement process, because reading is such a part of everything, not just English but math and science as well."
Molinaro says that if a student dropped out of school 40 years ago they would be able to find decent work at a factory or a steel mill. This is no longer the case. There is a dearth of well-paying jobs that require minimal education.
"We believe that the numbers have remained about steady over the years but what has changed is the world. So the world 40 years ago is much different than it is today. So the same number of kids dropped out of high school then it wouldn't have been as big as a deal. But now its a huge deal," said Molinaro.
Up to 1,000 Pittsburgh residents will receive free dogwood trees on the portico of the City-County Building on Grant Street. The small trees are handed out on a “first come, first serve” basis.
Pittsburgh’s Urban Forester Lisa Ceoffe says the effort is part of the TreeVitalize Pittsburgh program, which aims to plant 20,000 trees across the city by 2012.
“I’m really happy and proud to say that at the end of this spring season, we’ll be close to 10,000 trees, and that’s since the start of the program, TreeVitalize, in 2008,” says Ceoffe. “These trees are a way for residents to participate in our overall count. They can go online, register the tree, and basically feel like they participated in greening the city.”
Chris Josephs of Forest Hills says the program is a step in the right direction.
“It’s a reinforcement of our increased awareness of our environment, which is always good,” says Josephs. “Pittsburgh is on the forefront of the greening of buildings. Myself has always been interested in helping the environment. I think it’s a way forward and it’s a merit badge for our city.”
Cathy Sweeney of Edgewood came with her granddaughter to get a tree for their yard.
“We’re going to plant it, and watch it grow,” says Sweeney. “It takes a long time, but we’re looking forward to it.”