Friday, March 28, 2014

Federal Rule Will Clarify Nation’s Streams and Wetlands and Protect the Susquehanna River

For Immediate Release:

For more information contact
Thomas Au, Conservation Chair
Sierra Club PA Chapter

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency and US Army Corps of Engineers proposed a new federal rule that would protect streams and wetlands from pollution throughout the US, including those in the Susquehanna River basin. The rule will help to protect the drinking water for millions of Americans, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, and reduce the risk of flooding.

The Sierra Club applauds the Obama administration for this effort to restore a common-sense approach to protecting our nation's lakes, rivers and streams. Clean water is an undeniable necessity for the health of our families, our environment, and our economy—not to mention our enjoyment. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have recognized that ensuring the protection of water bodies upstream is vital to keeping pollution out of our waters downstream.

To protect Americans' drinking water, health, and recreation opportunities, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. But, due to conflicting Supreme Court decisions during the past decade, there has been confusion over which streams and wetlands are covered, undermining efforts to protect streams which feed into the public drinking water systems.

“With this rule, everyone—including those wishing to develop in and around these waters—will have a clearer picture of what they can and can’t do under the law,” says Thomas Au, Conservation Chair for the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. "The rule will help everyone comply with the Clean Water Act."

The proposed rule, subject to public comment, would make clear which "waters" will be covered by the Act’s pollution prevention and cleanup programs and protect those waters that have important effects on downstream creeks and the Susquehanna River.  "Today's rule will implement the goals of the Clean Water Act.  We look forward to seeing a strong rule finalized quickly," stated Mr. Au.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Beaver County Under Siege

By Roni Kampmeyer

A distressing stage is being set in Southern Beaver County as it becomes a major target for oil and gas development.  This area is already enduring the health and environmental impacts from several corporate polluters.  The American Lung Association ranks Beaver County as 19th in the nation for air pollution.  The region’s mortality rate is 27 percent higher than the nation’s average.

The first of the polluters is the world’s first nuclear power plant originally built in 1959 and rebuilt in 1972.  This aging nuclear power plant has had multiple recent incidents which make one wonder if its age is showing or if there is some sort of operator negligence or neglect.  Industry regulators who once said that the life span of a nuclear power plant was forty (40) years are now claiming the life can be up to 100 years.  Beaver Valley Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant’s license has been extended to 2036.

Right next door to the nuclear plant is the fifth largest coal combustion plant in the country, Bruce Mansfield, which also ranks as the nation’s eighth highest producer of greenhouse gases.   Every producer of energy has to have a disposal site and Bruce Mansfield has the nation’s largest high hazard earthen dam and coal ash impoundment just seven (7) miles west of the plant.  It is currently operating under a Federal Consent Decree to correct the leaking impoundment and the contamination caused by it.  Both Unit 1 and Bruce Mansfield are owned by First Energy, LLC.

AES Power Plant, Wheaton Power Plant, Armstrong World Industries and Horsehead Zinc Plant round off the major contributors to Beaver County’s pollution and mortality rankings.  It is, however, the shear sight of thumper truck caravans and helicopters transporting seismic testing equipment by land and over head on a daily basis that brings visions of an invasion to an area with a dozen or more gas wells with many more on the way.  With the pipeline already in place and property acquisition and demolition in process another captain of industry, Shell, has its sights set on building a Cracker Plant on the existing Horsehead site.

A study, released by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, found that residents living in southwestern Pennsylvania, have a “significantly higher than acceptable risk” of getting cancer from air toxins.  Specific cancer risk rates for Beaver County were not immediately available.  The report did say Shell’s proposed $2.5 billion petrochemical plant could raise cancer risk in the area because it will emit large quantities of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both considered “probable human carcinogens” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In spite of the report’s findings, State Representative Christiana and State Senator Vogel are deeply entrenched in these dealings.  Senator Vogel’s farm is home to a gas well.  The Beaver County Commissioners are swelled with hopes of economic stimulus from all this activity.  While it cannot be argued that economic stimulus is welcome and necessary in Beaver County which has been in an economic state of depression since the eighties when the steel mills ceased operations; one cannot help but feel that no one is "watching the hen house" and making sure this development is safe for the health of the community and the environment.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Our Growing Season

By Wendi Taylor
Chair, Sierra Club PA Chapter

It’s spring and many of us will be getting outside to do some gardening and yard work.  We will be adding some compost to our gardens and turning the soil, planting our peas and spinach, cutting back our bushes, and pulling off the dead leaves and stocks from our iris and gladiolas. We know that Nature will supply the sunshine and the rain and in a few months, we will be enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Maybe we Sierra Club leaders can learn some lessons from nature about how to grow our club. The Sierra Club has an established garden. Maybe we need to loosen our soil and add some nutrients so that new ideas and new members can take root and thrive.

Structure is good but when it is too rigid, we expend a lot of energy meeting, rather than doing something.  Ronald Chisom, a civil rights advocate and a co-founder of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, taught me to analyze the effectiveness of a group by one simple measure:  “Show me your work.” Meeting is not doing the work. Planning is not doing the work. We have to do something! And that takes volunteers.

Volunteers are our most important resource. They are the hands, the feet and the head of the club. The leadership should support the volunteers, not the other way around. We need to help volunteers find a place to take root and grow.

I had one group leader tell me that she waits a year before giving a volunteer a leadership role in the club. If someone gives you a strawberry plant, would you wait a year to plant it? No! You try to plant it as soon as possible because the longer you wait, the less likely the plant will survive.  We need to have something for our volunteers to do right away. They need to feel like we have been waiting for them to join us! Otherwise, their interest will shrivel up and die or they will find some other group to plant them.   

If we welcome our volunteers and nurture them, their enthusiasm and passion will grow into something strong and wonderful.  If people feel they are doing important work with people they like, they will bloom where they are planted.

A good pruning can rejuvenate our trees and bushes, even our symbolic Sierra Club tree! Cutting back on some of our singleness of purpose can help us branch out and become fuller and growing in new directions. In a way, the Sierra Club is like a bush that has never been pruned. We have five sturdy branches that are growing but there are no smaller branches growing from them. The bush seems scrawny, compared to bushes with a lot of greenery and fullness.

There are other progressive groups in our communities, whose members have a lot in common with us. They may not be environmental groups, but they are groups that seeking to improve the lives of the people in the communities. We need to branch out and work with them on their issues and if we do it right, they may in turn work with us on our issues. No group has enough power to change things. But if all groups of goodwill could come together, we could wield a lot of power.

We know that dead leaves and branches sap the strength from a plant. We need to take a hard look at what they do and ask whether it is sapping the strength or adding vitality to the club?
Every time I put together the agenda for the Chapter Executive Committee, I struggle with this. What dead stuff can I get rid of and what can I add to make these meetings inspiring?  Educational? Interactive? Worthwhile? Fun? 

I am very aware that people travel hours to get to our meetings and I want them to feel like it was worth the trouble. These meetings are like an experiment. I try to throw in something new to the mix and see what happens. Some things don’t work. Yet, doing something differently does serve to throw people a little off balance, which we know is when people are the most creative.

Yes, we have to get through the business, but I feel like we should also be adding some compost, turning soil and pulling off the dead stuff so that we all can bloom where we are planted. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Philly Beyond Coal Campaign Protests Coal-Industry Water Pollution at EPA Region 3 Headquarters

Philly Sierra Club Beyond Coal activists teamed up with activists from Rising Tide, Protecting Our Waters, Earth Quaker Action Team, Mountain Justice and other allies from Appalachia to put on the second rally at the EPA this year, and the third event the group has staged since the organizations started working together in late 2012. The two actions were the most successful series of rallies that the Philly Beyond Coal Team has organized in the last three years, because of the high turnout, diversity of groups involved in planning and turnout, volunteer-led process used in planning that involved groups from Appalachia and Philadelphia who hadn’t worked together, the creativity and forcefulness of the events, and the press coverage received (two media outlets covered each event for a total of four media hits).  It’s telling that the TV news crew that questioned the EPA for their reaction to the second protest were told, "The state of West Virginia is overseeing the clean-up and the EPA is ready to help if asked."  This reply makes it clear that the EPA is leaving water quality up to states that are in cahoots with the coal companies.

In blowing snow and subfreezing temperatures, dozens of Sierra Club and Rising Tide Philly activists marched from Love Park to the EPA Region 3 headquarters carrying a 30 foot long black plastic “river,” (made by volunteer Dave Moscatello) part of it polluted with spots of chemicals labeled with their side effects, and part of it blue and filled with fish—the goal we seek. A “hazmat-suited EPA representative” (Eli Schewel of Rising Tide Philly) led the march. Drums punctuated the air as the group arrived at the EPA, where the sidewalk began to fill with fellow demonstrators asking, “What is the EPA going to do about coal industry pollution of Appalachian rivers and streams and threats to communities' health?”

Against a backdrop of the blackened “river” and a huge puppet representing the EPA, Johanna DeGraffenreid from Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia spoke about the devastation and illness that plague Appalachia wherever mountain top removal coal mining occurs.  She also talked about the numerous leaks and spills of coal ash, coal ash slurry, and coal industry chemicals in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina that have left residents worried about their health and the safety of their children—all with no response from the EPA.  She explained that state departments that are charged with protecting the environment are in bed with the coal industry and turn a blind eye to these recurring tragedies.  And the EPA Region 3 office here in Philly is charged with overseeing coal-mining pollution in the mid-Atlantic states.  She asked when they are going to fulfill their duty.

Coryn Wolk from Philadelphia's Protecting Our Waters extended the theme of fossil fuel pollution by highlighting the parallel struggles in Pennsylvania with natural gas fracking, which causes water despoliation and the resulting incidence of illness and birth defects. She talked about the need to fight on both fronts and to work together to get EPA to stop the poisoning of our communities both in Philadelphia and Appalachia.

Sierra Club volunteer Sue Edwards added that the bitter cold we were experiencing is part of the story of global warming, which alters the jet stream and causes disrupted, record-breaking, weather of all kinds.  What is needed, she said, is shifting from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.  She led a chant:  FOSSIL FUELS LEAK AND SPILL, WIND AND SUN NEVER WILL!  More chants followed, including one spontaneously led by Vietnam veteran Gerald Brown:  EPA, CLEAN IT UP!  ALL THIS FILTH HAS GOT TO STOP!  He was there with a group from the Veterans Multi-Service Center who have become frequent participants in hearings and rallies aimed at stopping fossil fuel pollution.

The Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign in Philadelphia garnered coveted TV news coverage when  WCAU ran an accurate thirty second segment on the early evening news, including a quote from an EPA spokesperson saying, “a clean-up is underway.”  What we need is an end to the spills, not just a clean-up in the aftermath.  A photographer from the Metro, the daily free commuter newspaper read by thousands, took photos, one of which ran on page two the next day with a caption that succinctly expressed why we were there:  Protesters ask "Where is the EPA?  Protesters with the Sierra Club marched to the US Environmental Protection Agency's offices in Center City to denounce mountaintop-removal coal mining and chemical leaks in West Virginia that led to hundreds of thousands of people without access to potable water.

(clink on link below for TV coverage and our own video)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fracking and the Moral Arc of the Universe

By Mark Lichty
Sierra Club Member & Executive Producer of Groundswell Rising

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The moral arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice.” 
To the hundreds of families on the list of those harmed in Pennsylvania fracking country, these words do not ring true. With a legislative and executive branch virtually owned by the gas companies, the moral arc seemed to be on a path toward injustice. 
I write here both as a filmmaker, and as a businessman that comes from a progas/profracking belief.  Even today, I am not anti fracking, just pro-moratorium.  My company had spent thousands of dollars converting a plant we owned to gas, buying into the gas companies’ propaganda that fracked gas was a cleaner burning fuel.  It was not until three years ago when I began to research this issue that I realized the totality of the environmental consequences that the Supreme Court has alluded to. 

The state Supreme Court redirected that path towards justice when it ruled in its landmark decision that portions of Act 13 are unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Notably, the Court stated, ““As the citizens illustrate, development of the natural gas industry in the Commonwealth unquestionably has and will have a lasting, and undeniably detrimental, impact on the quality of these core aspects [life, health, and liberty): surface and ground water, ambient air, etc.] of Pennsylvania’s environment, which are part of the public trust.” [Opinion at p.117.]
Additionally, Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican who wrote the plurality opinion, stated, ““By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.” [Opinion at p.118]. That the Supreme Court recognized the Constitutional right is extraordinary.
Our team has worked several years on Groundswell Rising, a film examining the environmental issues surrounding fracking that the Supreme Court expressed concern about.  It is vindicating for us and the hundreds of environmental groups concerned about this issue to finally be heard after being ignored by the legislative and executive branches of our state government.

The Corbett administration has been purchased by the gas companies, a seamless merger between industry and government.  We were not confident that the Supreme Court would  step up to the plate. It did, and Justices Castille, Todd, McCaffrey,and Baer  deserve your commendations. While this is a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, it elevates the environmental rights movement at a national level.
While I celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision, the issue is really how did this intrusive legislation abdicating local zoning to the gas industry ever get passed?  We got here when the Corbett administration was bought by the gas companies.  Common Cause/Pa. did an outstanding study, “Deep Drilling ,Deep Pockets” (, in which it laid out the pervasive influence of the gas companies on Pennsylvania legislation.  Corbett got nearly $1,100,000 from the gas companies for his gubernatorial race, and more than $1.8 million in all of his races. Those legislators who supported gas company positions received about four times the money from the gas companies that their opponents did. Without that money contaminating the process, there is no way that Act 13 would have passed.

Gas money contaminates every level of our government.  The gas companies with the leadership of Vice President Cheney managed to get the Halliburton loophole through which exempted the gas industry from The Clean water Act, Safe Drinking water Act, and several other hard fought pieces of legislation—the only industry ever to be exempted from all of these acts.  That allowed the gas companies to inject toxic chemicals into the wells to extract gas. Now Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and others have introduced legislation –The Frac Act, and the Breathe Act to undo some of that damage. But it is doubtful there will be movement on these bills because of oil/gas company influence. Citizens must ask if sacrificing public health and the environment—numerous scientific studies show that is the case—is worth the temporary economic benefits that the cheerleaders of Harrisburg are promoting.