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Scientists who feel under attack, to march for political clout

Marion Leary will be speaking at the rally about science communication, and hopes to get more researchers out of the lab and talking to the public.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Marion Leary with her daughter Harper making signs at Frankford Hall in Fishtown, ahead of Saturday's March for Science in Philadelphia. Leary will be speaking at the rally about science communication, and hopes to get more researchers out of the lab and talking to the public.

Thousands of marchers are expected in Center City Philadelphia on Saturday for the first ever March for Science. The event is combined with the 47th annual Earth Day observance, which is expected to draw millions of people to cities and towns across the country, with the main event in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia’s demonstration will start at City Hall, with a march that ends up at Penn’s Landing. While this celebration of science is billed as nonpartisan, organizers say it’s time that scientists become a political force in an era when evidence based decision-making seems under attack.

Philadelphia’s original Earth Day organizers turned a day into a whole week of activism, teach-ins, and concerts in Fairmount Park. At the time, protest movements and college activism focused on stopping the war in Vietnam and promoting civil rights. The idea that hundreds of people would gather to promote environmental protection was novel.

Still people like Allen Ginsburg, Ralph Nadar and Dr. Benjamin Spock came to speak. The cast from the Broadway hit Hair showed up and performed. The events of that day had enormous impact on public policy. But marches have since become routine. It begs the question on what impact scientists and their supporters will have in the age of Trump.

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Allentown teen sues Trump administration for inaction on climate

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally on Independence Plaza.

Jonathan Wilson / Newsworks

Protesters unfurl a cloth sun at the conclusion of the rally in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie Kivlehan says she doesn’t remember when she first heard about climate change. It was a normal topic of conversation at the dinner table, one that often included her grandfather, Jim Hansen, an astro-physicist at Columbia University and perhaps one of the worlds’ most well-known climate scientists. Hansen began sounding the alarm about rising temperatures and rising sea levels back in the early 1980′s.

“Because we concluded already that if we burn all the coal, we’ve got a different planet,” Hansen said recently, speaking to StateImpact prior to an appearance at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ll lose all the coastal cities. It doesn’t make sense burn all the fossil fuels, we need to look at energy policies now.”

But more than 35 years after Hansen published his first paper on how carbon dioxide emissions could change the planets climate, he says the U.S. government has failed to act and it’s time for the courts to force the issue. He and his granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan are suing the federal government, along with 20 other young people from across the country.

The suit, originally filed during the Obama Administration by the organization Our Children’s Trust, now faces a battle with President Trump. The lawsuit claims that the federal government has taken actions to promote the use of fossil fuels.

“When [the] legislative and executive branch, when they don’t do their jobs,” said Kivlehan, “it’s the court’s jobs to act as a check.” Continue Reading

EPA cuts would leave states with more work, less money

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has said states, "have the resources and expertise to deal with clean water and clean air issues.” But many state agencies, like Pennsylvania's DEP, are struggling to do basic things, like water inspections, amidst years of cuts.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt says states, "have the resources and expertise to deal with clean water and clean air issues.” But amid years of budget cuts, many state agencies, like the Pennsylvania DEP, are struggling to do basic tasks, like water inspections.

The Trump administration has proposed cutting 2.6 billion dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s about a third of its budget.

It could mean state environmental agencies will have to do more work with less money. But in many places, those agencies are already strapped.

Late last year the EPA sent Pennsylvania a letter warning its water program was so under-staffed it was failing to enforce federal safe drinking water standards. State inspectors aren’t checking public water systems often enough.

Doing “triage”

John Holden is water production supervisor for the City of Lancaster. Standing on the banks of the Conestoga River, he watches water rush into one of the city’s two filtration plants. Inside the plant, he shows off the spaghetti-like membranes that block bacteria from getting into water for 120,000 people.

“This is what separates the dirty water from the clean water,” he explains.

John Holden

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lancaster City water production supervisor John Holden has seen the Pennsylvania DEP get cut over the past decade.

According to Holden, the state does regularly check water quality at this plant, because it’s part of such a big system. But he says smaller water systems — for example, a school in a rural area, or a mobile home community—can get overlooked. Pennsylvania has about 8,600 public water systems.

This is a problem because it’s almost always state environmental agencies that do the work of enforcing federal environmental laws. Pennsylvania now plans to hike fees on public water systems, so it can hire more inspectors. The state Department of Environmental Protection hopes the fee increase will raise $7.5 million to pay for 33 new inspectors.

“They probably need to raise their fees, so they can do their job,” says Holden. “They’ve certainly been cut over the last 10 to 15 years. I’ve seen that.”

Over the past decade Pennsylvania’s DEP has lost about 40 percent of its state funding and 25 percent of its staff. Earlier this year, the agency’s Citizens Advisory Council sent a letter to legislators warning the budget cuts have reached an “unsustainable level.”

David Hess led the agency under former Republican Governor Tom Ridge. He now worries public health is at risk.

“I think the department, over the last 10 or 12 years, has had to do so much triage– decide what lives and dies,” says Hess. “In my opinion, it is very close to not being able to accomplish its mission.”

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EPA union fights back on Trump’s planned budget cuts

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

New reports out of the White House shine more light on the proposed 31 percent cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump’s current plan would eliminate 25 percent of  EPA jobs. And it would slash water protection programs, including clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay. For the Chesapeake program alone, the new documents show about 40 full-time employees will lose their jobs. And unionized EPA employees are fighting back in a way they haven’t for decades.

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Pennsylvania launches program promoting solar energy

The state is launching a federally-funded program called "Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future."

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state is launching a federally-funded program called "Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future."

The state Department of Environmental Protection is moving ahead with a 30-month program to kick-start a major solar energy initiative called Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future. Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell appeared on WITF’s Smart Talk Wednesday to discuss the program, which is funded by $550,000 from the federal Department of Energy.

Although less than one percent of Pennsylvania’s energy generation is currently derived from solar power, McDonnell says he wants the state to become a solar energy leader by 2030.

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After Standing Rock, pipeline fights continue around U.S.

Activist Tim Spiese talks with an Amish family who lives near the camp.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Activist Tim Spiese talks with an Amish family who live next to the pipeline encampment.

As authorities clear out the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp, battles have flared up in other states, including Pennsylvania, which has become a major hub of natural gas development. Anti-pipeline activists recently launched an encampment in Lancaster County, and they’ve been coordinating with groups around the country.

The Lancaster activists want to disrupt construction of the newly-approved Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline. They’re taking inspiration from Native Americans’ monthslong campaign in North Dakota.

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A year later, pipeline report is largely ignored

A scene from one of the many contentious public meetings of the state's pipeline infrastructure task force.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A scene from one of the many contentious public meetings of the state's pipeline infrastructure task force.

Pennsylvania has rapidly become a hub for the development of new natural gas pipelines. In recent weeks, billions of dollars worth of projects have been approved by state and federal regulators. Shortly after he took office, Governor Tom Wolf convened a major task force to recommend ways to coordinate planning and best practices for this building boom.

But a year after the panel issued a report with 184 recommendations, it appears much of its work has been ignored.

“Put on a shelf somewhere”

The Governor’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force had problems from the beginning

For one thing, it was really big, with 48 members and another 100 volunteers on workgroups. They also had a hard time agreeing on anything. There were representatives from the gas industry, government, academia and environmental groups, and they weren’t exactly all on the same page.

Finally, the public meetings were often disrupted by protesters. At the last meeting, about a year ago, seven people were arrested. The whole effort was spearheaded by then-secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, John Quigley.

At the group’s final meeting, he said the report was just a first step, and state’s work on pipelines should continue.

“This is the start of a conversation,” Quigley told the group. “This is fertile ground. I do believe this is a very fertile document that can generate a lot of positives.”

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Trump’s first days fuel optimism among drillers, angst for environmentalists

President Donald Trump's first two weeks in office are sparking renewed optimism in the oil and gas industry, while environmental groups steel themselves for a long, hard fight.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump's first two weeks in office are sparking renewed optimism in the oil and gas industry, while environmental groups steel themselves for a long, hard fight.

In less than two weeks in office, President Donald Trump is working to usher in a new era for American energy companies. He’s begun rolling back efforts to combat climate change and is pushing for federal approval of controversial, new infrastructure projects — such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.

There is guarded optimism among fossil fuel companies as they wait and see, along with everyone else, how Trump will deliver on his promises to boost American energy production. But his win has also been a major blow to many environmental groups, climate scientists, and others who worry about the administration’s disregard for science and policies aimed at protecting public health and the natural world. They’re now steeling themselves for a long, hard fight.

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Researchers rush to preserve environmental data they believe to be threatened by Trump

University of Michigan librarian ...works on downloading scientific data as part of the Data Refuge hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

University of Michigan librarian Justin Schell works on downloading scientific data as part of the Data Refuge hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania, January 14, 2017.

With every new administration, government held information disappears. Digital archivists know this. They’ve worked in the past to preserve Bush Administration data when Obama was elected. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of budget priorities. Funds no longer exist to keep up a website. But with the incoming Trump administration, some scientists worry key environmental research will go missing because of political reasons. So researchers from across the country and Canada gathered in Philadelphia last weekend to copy key data.

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Gas industry talks pipelines, bird flu, at the Farm Show

On Wednesday PennAg Industries and Sunoco Logistics unveiled a new online training tool designed to raise awareness about threats like the avian flu.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

On Wednesday PennAg Industries and Sunoco Logistics unveiled a new online training tool designed to raise awareness about threats like the avian flu.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas pipeline building boom is happening mostly in rural areas, which is one of the reasons representatives from the oil and gas industry were at the 101st Farm Show in Harrisburg this week.

They kept a relatively low profile though, and tried connect with farmers– about issues ranging from eminent domain, to stopping the spread of the avian flu. Two forums were held, and although they took place inside the Farm Show complex, they were sparsely attended and neither appeared on the official schedule.

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