Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Field Notes: Ryerson Outing

Last weekend, the Pennsylvania Sierra Club held its first event as part of the Forest Watch Campaign. Working with the Allegheny Group and the Center for Coalfield Justice, we brought a group of urban Pittsburgh residents and community members from Southwestern Pennsylvania to Ryerson Station State Park. There, we held two hikes and a workshop on bringing together different groups fighting natural gas, longwall, and climate issues.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is under attack from coal and gas extraction on all fronts and Ryerson, a 1,164-acre state park found in Greene County, is no exception. The park was home to Duke Lake, a reservoir lake and cornerstone of the surrounding community. Ten years ago, Duke Lake was drained due to the cracks forming in the dam. The Department of Environmental Protection later determined longwall mining at CONSOL’s nearby Bailey Mine to be at fault. We chose to have our outing at Ryerson to highlight these past injustices and to learn how to support the current work being done by the community members in the area.

We started the day with a bird-watching hike through Polly Hollow led by a DCNR employee. The park is home to a variety of birds, both residents and visitors, and more than 120 species of birds have been documented in the park. While we didn’t see many birds on our hike, we certainly heard a few, including the Orchard Oriole. Participants also shared knowledge on different plants and mushroom varieties we saw along the trail.

A little later in the morning, the rest of our outings participants began to trickle in. The main hike took place along the Iron Bridge Trail. This path follows some of the North Fork of Dunkard fork, a little feeder stream, and what used to be Duke Lake. Here, we stopped to talk about some of the hydrology at Ryerson and wetlands in particular. Members of our group highlighted the important role that wetlands play in regulating streamflow and maintaining water quality.

After our hike, we broke for lunch back at the Iron Bridge where we had a workshop on balancing the complex relationships between communities, extraction, and activism. Our participants broke into small discussion groups to tackle the question, “if you could end all coal mining immediately, would you?” The groups spent a while deliberating and came back with some thoughtful responses. As a group made up of local residents and urban allies, everyone had a different approach and relationship to the issues in the region.

While most people had an immediate response, the effects of their initial decisions became clear through discussion. Some participants talked about the need to stave off future climate disasters but others talked about the immediate harm to local communities forced into a coal-based mono economy. Other people brought up the need for a slow and just economic transition parallel to backing away from a carbon-based economy. Regardless of their decision, it became clear that we don’t win unless everybody wins and many people questioned whether they were the ones to make that call in the first place.

After our workshop, we caravaned to a few locations in Greene County to see the impacts of the coal and gas industry. We stopped by a gas compressor station adjacent to the park, a coal refuse disposal area which is a valley filled in with toxic coal waste, and the largest coal preparation facility in the county that processes over 20 million tons of coal a year.

Veronica Coptis and Eva Westheimer from the Center for Coalfield Justice shared some background on the current threats to the park. Currently the beautiful streams left in Ryerson Station State Park are under imminent threat from ongoing longwall mining that is predicted to destroy them. With the recent news that Duke Lake cannot be restored because of ongoing ground movement from mining subsidence, these streams are vital to renewing and improving Ryerson State Park.

There is still work to be done to save Ryerson State Park. To get involved and learn more about these efforts, please contact Veronica at the Center for Coalfield Justice. To learn more about CCJ’s work with Ryerson, click here. To get involved with the Forest Watch Campaign or to plan an outing in your area, contact me.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sierra Club Responds to DEP Draft Final Rulemaking for Oil and Gas Operations

August 12, 2015

Joanne Kilgour, Director, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, 412-965-9973, joanne.kilgour@sierraclub.org
Thomas Au, Conservation Chair, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, 717-234-7445

Sierra Club Responds to DEP Draft Final Rulemaking for Oil and Gas Operations

Governor Wolf has promised to ensure that Pennsylvania’s government would be open and transparent  and to regulate oil and gas drilling activities to ensure that operations would be conducted safely. Today, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and DEP Secretary Quigley followed through on the promise of openness and transparency, and announced some of the changes to how it will regulate oil and gas activities.

The Pennsylvania Sierra Club thanks DEP for the thorough and meaningful public participation process that led to this draft final rule, and applauds the administration for taking steps to limit fracking pits and impoundments. “Waste impoundments are a significant pollution threat and create dangerous conditions for public health and the environment,”  Chapter Director Joanne Kilgour stated. “We support provisions that prevent operators from using open pits for storage of dangerous substances, including wastewater, drill cuttings, and substances (like gels and cement) that return to the surface after fracking.  Many spills, leaks, and incidents involving pits have occurred which have contaminated water, soil, and air.”  The regulations will require containment of regulated substances, but does not totally ban open impoundments.

However, the Sierra Club remains concerned that the administration will not keep oil and gas operations at least one mile from schools and playgrounds and will not follow through to regulate noise pollution. The draft final regulations only require drilling activities to be a mere 200 feet from schools and playgrounds.  Schools, playgrounds, medical facilities, and nursing homes are public resources which should be protected from hazardous industrial activities, and in the interest of transparency we will seek a full explanation from DEP for its decision to establish such a small setback.  “Our children and those in need of medical attention require protection from oil and gas operations and  such a small protected area will not be sufficiently protective of their health. We will continue to seek additional protections for schools, playgrounds, and medical facilities.” stated Ms. Kilgour.

“Regulations to protect the public are long overdue”  stated Thomas Au, Conservation Chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. “The degradation of our air, water, and health have been a fact of life since the drilling boom began several years ago. Pennsylvania is long past the time of continued debate on whether oil and gas activities impact health. Instead, there is an urgent need to face realities on the ground and fix critical problems, such as failures to immediately notify public officials of spills and leaks.”

The Sierra Club will continue to work with the administration to adopt oil and gas regulations that are fully protective of the public, and looks forward to the inclusion of public health in future regulatory packages. DEP has received significant input from both the public and the regulated community on these changes, and DEP must be empowered to move quickly to finalize these regulations.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Welcome Tom Torres!

It’s hard for me to talk about myself because what I really want to do is talk about all of the incredible individuals I have had the opportunity to learn from over the past six years. I have supported rural groups resisting extraction in Appalachia, worked with communities of color in the Southeast to build new economic futures, and helped build broad coalitions all across the region to fight for self-determination. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about campaigns and not mention who makes the wins possible: the communities driving and defining our work.

As the Conservation Program Coordinator, I’ll be supporting the Chapter through the Forest Watch Initiative, a program that empowers Sierra Club members to become the eyes and ears of the forest. Through member outings and an interactive campaign platform, we hope to make connections between public land issues, oil and gas infrastructure, and frontline struggles all over the state. With over 20,000 members and a long history of successful grassroots work, the Pennsylvania Sierra Club is in a strong position to push back against the dirty industries that threaten our land, water, and people.

Tom overlooking a strip mine on Black Mtn., Appalachia, Va. 

Growing up the child of Mexican immigrants, I know the inherent value in resilient and diverse communities. My experience in Appalachia was as much about immigrants and manufacturing as it was mountains and riverbeds. Navigating different facets of the work — from farmers in Northeast Georgia and black landowners in the Alabama Black Belt to urban residents fighting for security and recognition — I have seen that strong communities are ones that recognize their collective power. Diversity in landscape, in issues, and in people is a value but also a challenge that must be met with compassion and understanding. I’m excited to experience everything Pennsylvania has to offer and I look forward to visiting with all of you across the state.

Tom Torres
Conservation Program Coordinator
Forest Watch Campaign

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nuclear Knowledge

Late long-time Sierra Club member and ardent activist Dr.Judy Johnsrud shares her knowledge on nuclear energy. The video includes 3 different segments over multiple years. Everyone will learn a lot as Judy describes the fundamental issues linked to the production and necessary isolation of nuclear waste. Some of Judy’s main points include:
  • No safe level of exposure;
  • Don’t transport the waste, but isolate on site;
  • No radioactive materials in childrens’ toys;
  • There is no radiation that should be below regulatory concern. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debates

Start Date:
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
End Date:
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Widener School of Law
Common Cause Pennsylvania is co-sponsoring two debates among the primary election candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This will be an historic election, with three vacant court seats being contested.
Democratic Candidates - Debate April 29th
Republican Candidates - Debate April 30th
When it comes time to vote for your Supreme Court Justices, do you often get to the polling booth and realize you really don’t know what each candidate stands for? This is your opportunity to learn where the candidates stand on the issues and their qualifications for serving on Pennsylvania’s highest court.
The seating is first come, first served, so please show up early!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Different, But Alike

Three famous men of the 19th century had lives that were dissimilar but also followed the same pattern. John Powell, born in 1834, Mark Twain, in 1835, and John Muir, in 1838, grew up in the developing Midwest -- Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. 

Powell studied biology and geology eagerly. As a teenager, he took several river trips rowing on the Illinois River, studying mollusks along the way and observing variations in appearance up and down the river. He was doing a pre-Origin of Species study of evolution. He studied at Illinois College and at Oberlin but never completed a degree. When the Civil War was imminent, he studied military science and then joined the northern army. He served in the artillery at stations along the Mississippi until he was wounded by an artillery shell and lost an arm. When he recovered from his wound, he returned to active duty. After the war, he planned and went on the trip that he is famous for, down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Powell didn’t make this trip just to do it. He made it to study the history of the earth. The Colorado cuts through rock layers progressively earlier and earlier. He could plot out much of the development of the earth’s crust on this trip.

John Powell in 1881.
Powell went on to serve as director of the U.S. Geological Survey for thirteen years. One of the interesting positions he took as a result of his Grand Canyon trip was that less than 2% of the west had sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. He predicted correctly that development of irrigation systems that removed water from rivers would lead to endless litigation and disappointment. His life led him from rural Illinois to the wilds of the west and then east, to Washington D.C. He died in 1902, age 68, in Maine.

Sam Clemens -- Mark Twain -- grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. After his father’s death, he dropped out of school and worked as a printer. After a few years, at age 18, he left Hannibal and went east, working as a printer in New York and Philadelphia. When he returned home, he decided to take a trip to South America. But he got no further than New Orleans. He became an apprentice river boat pilot and then embarked on a career as pilot, a profession that paid well and entailed glamour and prestige. He might have stayed on the river if the Civil War hadn’t closed the Mississippi to traffic.
Twain then followed his brother to Nevada where he became a newspaper man, doing more than typesetting, learning to write. Twain left Nevada for San Francisco then to the Sandwich Islands. Two years later he went on what amounted to the first cruise ship cruise, traveling to the Holy Lands.
With his publication of Innocents Abroad, the story of that cruise, his writing career was launched. He soon moved east and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. But Twain’s best known books are the three that involved the Mississippi River. We group together Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as his most memorable characters, overshadowed, perhaps, only by his own persona. Mark Twain was after all his best known character.

John Muir was born in Scotland but came to the United States when he was four. His parents established a farm in southern Wisconsin. Muir grew up there and did his share of farm work, but he also had a penchant for things mechanical. He built, among other things, a thermometer that was based on the principle of iron shrinking in the cold. And he built a device that would tip him out of bed at 2 in the morning so he could read and learn undistracted by his family.
John Muir and his beard.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, but when his brother left for Canada to avoid conscription into the army, Muir followed him. He soon found himself working at a saw mill where he redesigned the equipment to make it more efficient. In 1866, he moved to Indianapolis and redesigned a factory there. But then a tool broke. He was hit in the eye and lost sight in that eye for several months. At this point, Muir decided he wanted to live a different kind of life. He packed a small kit and started afoot, walking to Florida. After a couple of false steps in Florida, he booked passage to California. He worked at various jobs, but his work as a shepherd led him into the mountains and even to Yosemite. He had read that Yosemite was created by earthquakes; however, his close look at the striations on cliff sides of streams made him conclude that glacial action had created them. He didn’t keep his opinion to himself but challenged the foremost geologists on the subject. Ultimately, his conclusions proved right. Muir began
to write extensively on a variety of subjects, principally on nature. Muir took up grape cultivation and built an extensive and profitable vineyard. He joined and led an outings/mountain climbing club and began to advocate preservation of natural resources. Eventually the club became the Sierra Club.
Unlike Powell and Twain, Muir did not settle in the east. Instead, he kept a home base in California. He hiked there and traveled north to Alaska and southeast to the Grand Canyon. Muir lived a bit longer than Twain, dying in 1914.
These three were strong, unique, creative individuals caught in the same period of American history. Each grew up in the farm culture that prevailed. Each, in his own way, escaped the confines of that culture. They were inquiring, largely self-educated men using their talents to take on the givens of their world.
In a sense, they proved the limits of the Jeffersonian agricultural ideal. In a sense, the Civil War was a catalyst that moved each away from childhood, away from family, away from home. All three moved west. Only Muir stayed there. But they were part of the American frontier experience. 

-Phil Coleman