Friday, May 29, 2015

Next Step in Human Evolution?

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - In a sense, climate change is an opportunity for all of us, according to a prominent climatologist and public science educator.

Geosciences professor Richard Alley of Penn State University, who hosted the PBS miniseries "Earth: The Operators' Manual," said climate change is a serious threat to everyone, but we also now have a chance to change the entire way humans make and use energy. In the past, Alley said, we've burned through a series of energy sources - wood, whale oil and now fossil fuels.

"We're the first generation that knows how to get off the treadmill," he said, "how to build an economical, sustainable energy system without changing the climate and without running out of trees or whales."

One way to help make sure the transition happens, Alley said, is to implement the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Some coal and oil executives say climate change is a hoax, but Alley said that among scientists there's no question that it's real, serious and caused by humans. However, he said, small-scale, decentralized energy production is starting to do for the electricity grid what the Internet did for telecommunications.

"You can make power on your house with your solar cells, make power with wind, you can have some batteries," he said. "You can be a buyer, you can be a seller. A lot of sources, a lot of diversity - and that is robust against fluctuation."

Alley said this transition can be seen as a profound step in human history. He compared it to when people stopped being hunters and gatherers and shifted to agriculture.

"When our ancestors switched to farming food, they learned to make the earth give a whole lot more food," he said. "We can make a while lot more energy that really can do a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of places."

Engineers looking to make the grid more stable and flexible are considering some creative ideas including using electric cars and water heaters as a kind of giant distributed battery. Alley said these could provide a way to get energy when demand temporarily outstrips supply.

Alley will speak on "Climate Solutions: How to Reduce Energy Consumption and Help Pollinators and Wildlife," at an event to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Patton Township Municipal Building, 100 Patton Plaza, State College.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

PA Hunters, Anglers Hail New Administration Water Rule

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A new rule clarifying which waterways receive protection of the Clean Water Act is drawing praise from Pennsylvania hunters, anglers and conservationists. Photo credit: Kelly Donaldson/Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
PHOTO: A new rule clarifying which waterways receive protection of the Clean Water Act is drawing praise from Pennsylvania hunters, anglers and conservationists. Photo credit: Kelly Donaldson/Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Obama administration has released a new rule clarifying which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Pennsylvania hunters and anglers call it an excellent revision to the federal regulations that has gotten a bad rap.

Two court decisions have, in a sense, muddied the waters about what protections apply to a number of streams, creeks and wetlands. Jeff Sample, co-director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' Pennsylvania chapter, says the new Waters of the U.S. rule is simply clarifying the issue. But he says people are being frightened by misinformation about it.

"Basically, they're being fed this by commercial interests," Sample insists. "I understand people have a suspicious eye towards the government, and that's a healthy thing. But there are a number of myths out there, and a lot of them are just that – myths."

Some farm and mining groups and real estate developers say the new rules would cripple their operations by controlling every tiny stream and wetland. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says this isn't true. According to the agency, the new rule would clarify its jurisdiction to three percent of the country's surface area, all of which had been covered by the Clean Water Act before.

Sample stresses that the revised rule goes to great lengths to specify and enhance exemptions for farmers, ranchers and foresters, and says there are no new waters at issue.

"The waters that are protected, have been protected – and it's not a new 'land grab,'" he explains. "It's not new regulations affecting anything that any farmer or landowner was doing legally to begin with."

The Republican-led Congress is considering legislation to throw out the new Waters of the U.S. rule. Sample believes it would be a mistake. He says many of the waterways in question are small headwater streams and pothole wetlands, crucial for fish and wildlife habitat. He adds they are not only important for hunters and anglers, but for folks who get their drinking water downstream.

"It's a clarification of the act and what waters are covered, and this protects them," he says. "This protects their drinking water. It protects their hunters and fishermen."

While finalizing the rule, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held more than 400 public meetings and considered more than a million public comments. Nearly 90 percent of public comments favored the rule. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amtrak Budget Debate "Puts Safety and Congestion at Stake"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: The Senate Appropriations Committee gets back to work on Amtrak's budget, and Senators from the Northeast Corridor say the issue not only impacts train safety, but traffic jams as well. Photo credit - National Transportation Safety Board.
PHOTO: The Senate Appropriations Committee gets back to work on Amtrak's budget, and Senators from the Northeast Corridor say the issue not only impacts train safety, but traffic jams as well. Photo credit - National Transportation Safety Board.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - As folks head back to work after the holiday, Senators along the Northeast corridor say the rails would be a whole lot safer and the roads less clogged if Amtrak were properly funded.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy says Japan's Bullet train hurtles along at 200 miles per hour but has never had a fatal accident. He says the same is true in France because both nations have made significant investments in railroad infrastructure. But he says Congress has left Amtrak with a $21 billion backlog.

"We've made the opposite decision" says Murphy. "So it should come as no shock that every couple months, we are going to turn on the TV news and see another crash another set of fatalities on the Northeast corridor line."

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was stupid for Democrats to suggest that Republican budget cuts might have contributed to the Amtrak derailment that left eight dead near Philadelphia. Last week seven Northeast Senate Democrats called for full funding of Amtrak's request.

According to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a fifth of the nation's Gross Domestic Product is housed along the Northeast corridor. And he says many of his constituents likely did some fist shaking while stuck in traffic jams over the long weekend, people who could benefit from better train service.

"I'm hoping that they will direct those curses and those fists at John Boehner and the Republicans in the House that are blocking effective Amtrak transportation," says Blumenthal.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania says given the safety and economic issues at stake, senators need to approach the issue with same focus as the first responders he spoke to after the accident like woman who drove an hour home after a full day's work, but went right back when she heard what had happened.

"Turned right around and came back, because she knew she had a job to do," says Casey. "We should be bringing the same sense of urgency and determination that those first responders brought to their job last week."

President Obama's budget includes $500 million in capital improvement for the Northeast Corridor, and Murphy says that's a step in the right direction, but it's not enough to take care of the backlog.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Economist: Under GOP Pension Plan, State Pays More to Get Less

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A state Senate plan to shift to privatized public employee pensions would be a bad deal for retirees and would ultimately would leave Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook, analysts say. Picture courtesy of the state of Pennsylvania.
PHOTO: A state Senate plan to shift to privatized public employee pensions would be a bad deal for retirees and would ultimately would leave Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook, analysts say. Picture courtesy of the state of Pennsylvania.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Privatized pensions - such as those pressed by state Senate leaders - actually have higher fees and lower returns, analysts say.

The Republican lawmakers say they won't approve a state budget until Gov. Tom Wolf accepts their plan for dealing with Pennsylvania's $50 billion pension debt. Their proposal includes benefits cuts for current retirees and privatized 401(k)-style retirement plans for future retirees. But economist Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, said those plans cost more in fees and return less in benefits. He said they would leave former state workers and taxpayers on the hook.

"So when it costs more and you get lower returns, it's not rocket science," he said. "It costs roughly twice as much in contributions to get the same going into the retirement benefits."

Republicans in the Legislature say the state can't afford the current system. Teacher groups and others say the real problem isn't the pensions. For years, they say, the Legislature failed to kick in its full share, shifting the money to corporate tax cuts.

According to studies cited by the research center, traditional pensions historically have better returns than 401(k)-style plans. Herzenberg said traditional pensions can negotiate a better deal than can individuals investing their own money. He said privatizing a traditional plan puts the teachers and state employees at the mercy of Wall Street.

"It's essentially a transfer from Main Street retirees to Wall Street financial firms," he said.

Herzenberg said three states have tried privatizing pensions and it hasn't gone well in any of them.

In contrast, Wolf favors a plan to try to negotiate better fees for the current system, and selling bonds to reduce its debt some. The governor says the bonds could be funded by modernizing the state liquor stores.

Herzenberg said the governor's plan is a good one that would give previous reforms time to work.

"A modest bond that buys down the debt a little bit, especially when interest rates are really low, possibly with saving money in investment fees, makes total sense," he said.

About a half million former public school teachers and other former state employees get on average about $25,000 a year in benefits from the state's two pension systems. The typical public employee pays about 7.5 percent of his or her wages into the system.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Report: Pennsylvania Subsidizes Poverty Wages at Nursing Homes

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A study of state nursing home workers has found many don’t make enough to live on, and they have to rely on outside income including public assistance. Picture courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.
PHOTO: A study of state nursing home workers has found many don’t make enough to live on, and they have to rely on outside income including public assistance. Picture courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - According to a new study, Pennsylvania taxpayers are essentially paying twice for some poverty wages at state nursing homes.

Stephen Herzenberg, executive director with the Keystone Research Center, says their new study found the private nursing home industry pays nurses' aids and kitchen and janitorial workers below what is a living wage for even a small family in almost every part of the state.

He says the wages are so low, that public safety-net programs act as a hidden subsidy for a for-profit industry.

"Nursing homes get over two thirds of their money from the taxpayer," says Herzenberg. "And the taxpayer gets hit a second time because so many nursing home workers have to rely on public assistance."

The report is titled, "Double Trouble: Taxpayer-Subsidized Low-Wage Jobs in Pennsylvania Nursing Homes." It says aids average $13 an hour and support workers get $10 to $11. Herzenberg says more than half the workers surveyed said it wasn't enough to live on and they had to have other work or take public assistance.

He says a minimum starting wage of $15 per hour would improve care by reducing stress and turnover. Plus he says it would actually create jobs, because those workers would generate more consumer demand, while reducing the need for public assistance.

"It would benefit nearly 50,000 Pennsylvania workers," says Herzenberg. "While improving the quality of care and the good news is you get some of that money back."

Herzenberg says an industry that pays CEOs as much as 600 times what the front line caregivers make can afford to raise wages. Plus, he says the raises might actually pay off for the company in the long-run.

"Each time someone quits in a nursing home and they have to find a new worker, it costs an estimated $3,500, so you'd have a lot of savings from reduced turnover," he says.

Nursing home corporations say the low wages help them keep costs down, but Herzenberg says wages represent a small portion of costs.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Long Past Time to Let 3rd Circuit Nominee and Pennsylvanian Restrepo Have His Hearing

By Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People for the American Way

This post originally appeared on the People for the American Way blog: http://blog.pfaw.org/content/long-past-time-let-3rd-circuit-nominee-restrepo-have-his-hearing

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley yesterday announced there will be a judicial nominations hearing next Wednesday, the first one since March 11. He let eight weeks go by without allowing any of President Obama's judicial nominees to testify to the committee. It isn't like there haven't been plenty of nominees who have long been ready for this. Most of those nominated as far back as last November have yet to make it even that far.

As we have written before, Eastern Pennsylvania federal judge L. Felipe Restrepo is among those nominees being obstructed. Confirmed to his current position by the Senate by unanimous voice vote in June of 2013, he earned strong statements of support from home state senators Bob Casey (a Democrat) and Pat Toomey (a Republican) when he was nominated for elevation to the Third Circuit last November.

But since then ... nothing. Chairman Grassley has conspicuously refused to schedule a hearing for him. Although Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell announced in late January that she plans to take senior status this summer, thus opening a second vacancy on the court if Restrepo is not confirmed by then, Grassley did not schedule a hearing. And when the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts formally classified the vacancy Restrepo would fill as a judicial emergency in February, Grassley's response was ... nothing.

Pennsylvanians who care about their state's federal courts have been asking where their senators have been all this time, especially Toomey. As a fellow Republican, Toomey surely has Grassley's ear on matters of importance to folks in the Keystone State.

The fact that this nomination has gone for nearly half a year without a hearing says volumes about both Grassley and Toomey. As for saying things about Restrepo, he can best speak for himself, and surely would be pleased to do so, if only Grassley would let him.

** UPDATE from Keystone Progress **

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made the following statement today on the situation:

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Ranking Member, Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Executive Business Meeting
April 30, 2015

Today we are considering a bill introduced by Senator Franken, and cosponsored by eleven other members of this Committee, including myself.  I am proud to support S.993, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act which will reauthorize and improve the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act.  I was a cosponsor of this legislation when it was first introduced in 2004.  Senator Franken knows well the importance of addressing mental illness, and continuing the work of another great Minnesotan, the late Senator Paul Wellstone.  Senator Wellstone left a true legacy, ensuring that mental illness and addiction are treated just like any other physical illnesses by most insurance companies.  

This treatment is especially critical for those involved in the criminal justice system.  This bill reauthorizes that treatment, and aims to improve interactions between the mentally ill and law enforcement by supporting training programs for police and correctional officers.  This is crucial to preventing unnecessary violence in our communities.  I am grateful to Senator Franken for his commitment to this issue, and I look forward to supporting this bill. 

Unfortunately, there are no judicial nominees on today’s agenda.  This is because this Committee has not held a hearing on a judicial nomination in more than seven weeks and we have several well qualified nominees waiting for a hearing.  Five of the pending judicial nominees were nominated over five months ago, including three who will fill judicial emergency vacancies. 

Chairman Grassley noticed a nominations hearing for next week, and I hope it will include Luis Felipe Restrepo, a nominee from Pennsylvania for the Third Circuit.  Judge Restrepo was unanimously confirmed by the Senate two years ago by voice vote to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  By all accounts he has done an outstanding job.  He was nominated to the Third Circuit over five months ago with the support of Senators Casey and Toomey.  In the time his nomination has been pending, the judgeship he will fill has become a “judicial emergency vacancy.”  I hope this judicial emergency vacancy will be considered soon.


# # # # #

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Industry-Backed Chemical Safety Law "Doesn't Protect Pennsylvania Families"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

IMAGE: Public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions all say an industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals doesn't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families. Image credit: Wikimedia.
IMAGE: Public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions all say an industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals doesn't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families. Image credit: Wikimedia.
HERMITAGE, Pa. - An industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals won't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families, a coalition of consumer watchdogs say.

Senate Bill 697, also known as the Vitter-Udall bill, is being considered by a Senate committee – but the legislation is also drawing criticism from public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions.

Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, says in too many cases it would tie the hands of the EPA – and would largely prevent states from doing what the EPA can't.

"The legislation does not adequately reform the federal law," says Igrejas. "But at the same time, it would chill state activity, which has been the main thing that has been protecting the public from toxic chemicals for the last 30 years."

The watchdog coalition says slow safety testing and grandfathering under the current law has resulted in 62,000 chemicals being sold on the marketplace despite unknown impacts. According to the coalition, the EPA would only test a handful of these substances in the years after this bill became law.

That scenario concerns Maureen Swanson, a mother and the director of the Healthy Children Project for the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

"Flame-retardant chemicals are extremely dangerous to brain development," says Swanson. "Under this bill, EPA would not be able to act swiftly and get those chemicals out of our products."

Senator Bob Casey has not signed on as a sponsor of the bill, but Igrejas says pressure and donations from the industry have swayed many senators.

"The two largest recipients of campaign contributions in the last year were the two sponsors of this bill," he says. "The chemical industry's primary champion in Congress, Senator David Vitter from Louisiana, and also Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who's a Democrat."

Chemical regulation reform has been gridlocked for years, so watchdog groups say the public is now subject to exposure due to the huge backlog of untested chemicals.

While supporters say the bill is intended to deal with that issue, critics say it was largely written on industry terms – the result of lobbying and campaign spending by chemical manufacturers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

GOP Congress Gets Environmental ‘F' Grade So Far

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Conservation and environmental groups are harshly criticizing the first few months of a GOP-led Congress they say has done nothing to benefit clean air, clean water or wilderness protection. Photo credit: Beth Little.
PHOTO: Conservation and environmental groups are harshly criticizing the first few months of a GOP-led Congress they say has done nothing to benefit clean air, clean water or wilderness protection. Photo credit: Beth Little.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The 114th U.S. Congress gets a failing grade from conservation and environmental groups for the lawmakers' first four months of the session.

The Climate Action Campaign, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, Clean Water Action – among others – have tallied a report card for the Republican-led Congress under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, says the lawmakers haven't done much of anything to protect land, water or wildlife, or to fight climate change.

"It's an F from our perspective,” Karpinski states. “Polluters and their allies in Congress, who invested over $700 million in this new Congress, are doing all they can to try to wreck with our public health protections and destroy the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act."

Congressional Republicans say they are trying to promote growth by easing regulations. But critics contend GOP lawmakers are helping the corporations that have been major campaign donors.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed stronger protections for drinking water and limits on carbon pollution from power plants, and GOP lawmakers have tried – so far, unsuccessfully – to stop the agency.

Polls show strong national support for action to slow climate change, even among Republican voters.

Karpinski says under McConnell, party members seem to be answering to the big-money donors in the fossil fuel industries.

"EPA's mission is to protect our health, protect our air, protect our water,” he stresses. “They're moving forward with historic steps – and Sen. McConnell is trying to block them."

Karpinski accuses Republicans in Congress of trying to undermine some bedrock conservation laws – threatening a longtime consensus that's protected the national parks and forests, wildlife refuges and federal wilderness.

Ed Zahniser is the son of Howard Zahniser, the Pennsylvania conservationist and principal author of the Wilderness Act. He says the Act has preserved what are now some of the nation's greatest treasures – but he thinks today, it would not have passed.

"One could hardly think of a vote today – even on motherhood or apple pie – that would result in a vote of 370-some to one in the House, and 78 to 12 in the Senate," Ed Zahniser says.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Philly Airport Worker: Low Wages Making a Decent Life All But Impossible

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Some Philadelphia airport workers are protesting their employers' failure to meet the $12 per hour wage standard set by the city council. Photograph by Matt Stanley Photo.
PHOTO: Some Philadelphia airport workers are protesting their employers' failure to meet the $12 per hour wage standard set by the city council. Photograph by Matt Stanley Photo.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – One of the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) workers fighting for $12 an hour says his current minimum wage pay is keeping him from having a decent life.

Philadelphia’s mayor signed an executive order saying PHL workers should make $12 an hour, but some private contractors are still paying a lot less.

Hasson Benson has been a baggage handler for PrimeFlight for more than a year. The 21-year-old lives with his mother and sister, who he helps to support.

"Pay us $7.25 as if we were high school kids with summer jobs, not realizing that some of us are grown with two to three kids,” he says. “I don't understand."

Several hundred of the contractors' employees staged a symbolic one-day strike April 2. PrimeFlight has been largely silent on the issue, but another contractor announced plans to raise wages to the level set by the city.

The Service Employees International Union says it is bringing pressure through the city government and through the airlines that hire the contractors.

Last fall, after five of its employees received an award for good service, PrimeFlight released a statement saying how proud it was, stating, in part, "customer service is important in any business, but it takes on even greater significance at a major airport."

But Benson says the company doesn't offer any benefits worth having. He says the company doesn’t supply the equipment that employees need, such as gloves or kneepads. And he says the low wages make it tough for employees like him trying to work their way through college.

"If we get the $12, it would just feel like the weight is lifted off of my shoulders because I could provide more,” he explains. “I know I would be at school knowing, 'OK I've got enough money and I don't have to worry about while I'm doing my work.'"

Benson says poor wages are part of the reason he hasn't gotten married, moved into his own place and started a family. He's studying allied health at a community college, but he says minimum wage is a real threat to those career plans.

"Being in school and working, it's already hard enough,” he stresses. “It's always so much on my mind I think about dropping out all the time. But I know I have a family to take care of, so I got to push myself."

Friday, April 10, 2015

In PA, One in Seven Risks Going Hungry

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)


PHOTO: A new report from the Food Research and Action Center says slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians risk going hungry and don't always have enough money to buy food. Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
PHOTO: A new report from the Food Research and Action Center says slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians risk going hungry and don't always have enough money to buy food. Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - One Pennsylvanian in seven risks going hungry, according to a new report, and that number is higher in places such as Philadelphia.

According to the national analysis from the Food Research and Action Center, slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians live with food hardship and one in six - about 17 percent - of Philadelphia residents live with the threat of hunger.

Kathy Fisher, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said the slowly improving economy hasn't really changed that picture.

"To say that it's a percentage or two better, certainly that helps," she said, "but the vast majority of those people who were struggling in 2008, 2009 are still struggling."

The research from FRAC - titled "How Hungry is America?" - tallied how many Americans couldn't afford to buy food at some time during 2014. Nationally, that number is slightly more than 17 percent - about one in six.

The Republican-controlled Congress is threatening to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - food stamps - as a budget-cutting measure. Fisher said she thinks it's a terrible idea. While economic growth eventually might bring more jobs and better wages to the state, she said that doesn't mean much to people who are older or disabled, or to children - the groups who depend most heavily on the safety net.

"It's not as if the seniors are going to go out and get work," she said. "And SNAP - food stamps - is certainly the nation's No. 1 defense against hunger."

Fisher said SNAP was cut last year, and has been a regular target for reductions for several years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, SNAP has very low rates of waste, fraud and abuse.

The report is online at frac.org.