News

06/08/2019 - WHYY’s ‘The Why’: The Thwaites Glacier is melting. Here’s why the Philly region should care

The massive Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is melting.

Scientists are racing against time to figure out how it much could contribute to sea level rise and impact cites and coastlines thousands of miles away — including the Philadelphia region.

The World’s Carolyn Beeler and StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Susan Phillips explain on this episode of The Why.

06/07/2019 - A new strategy to regrow a forest on abandoned mineland: Start by tearing up the earth

The relatively new technique counters what had been traditional practice. But, one forester said, “It’s more natural — the way it was supposed to be, the way it was before mining."

06/07/2019 - ‘Water warriors’ in Del. demand funding for clean water projects

Mark Eichmann / WHYY

About 80 “water warriors” lobbied lawmakers at Legislative Hall in Dover in support of HB 200 that would earmark funding every year to pay for projects that improve water quality in Delaware.

Over the last year and a half, Delaware’s Office of Drinking Water has issued 11 notices for various locations, warning people to beware of contaminants in their water, especially water being consumed by babies younger than 6 months old.

The problem was especially bad in the southern Delaware town of Blades, where the three municipal wells tested positive for perfluorinated compounds in early 2018 at a rate above the human health-advisory level. Long-term exposure to the chemicals, found in products including Teflon pans, can affect pregnant women and infants, cause cancer, and alter the liver and immune system.

In nearby Ellendale, residents endured years of smelly, discolored water from private wells before finally approving a public water system in a referendum vote last year.

“I’m tired of delivering bottled water to folks in Ellendale, or Blades,” said Colin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Clean water is a basic human right. You can’t do anything without basic clean water.”

O’Mara led the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control under then-Gov. Jack Markell and was a big part of the administration’s 2014 push for a fee to fund clean water improvements. That effort failed to gain traction in the General Assembly. Several similar attempts since then have also failed.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend sponsored one of those efforts to secure funding for clean water projects. “We have all the technology we need to clean our waterways, we just don’t have the money. And we’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing since then,” he said. He’s hopeful this year’s effort, led by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Senate President Pro Tem David McBride, will have better luck.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of projects that people in our state are waiting on. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road any longer,” Longhurst said.

Her plan would fund improvements to water resources by earmarking $10 million in personal income tax revenue, $5 million of gross receipts tax revenue, $5 million in realty transfer tax revenue, and $5 million from corporate income tax revenue. That would reduce money into Delaware’s general fund by about $25 million annually over the next three years.

“We can spend trillions of dollars on state-of-the-art schools, health care and roads, but none of it will matter if we don’t address the failing water-infrastructure system,” Longhurst said. “We are past the point of just talking about it. We have to be bold. We have to make clean water and strong infrastructure a priority. If we ignore this problem, they will only continue to get worse.”

The bill would pay for items like flood mitigation and state testing for nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals that can contaminate water supplies. The measure would create a Clean Water Trust that would compile a list of priority projects and be able to issue bonds and pursue matching grants to provide further funding.

About 80 supporters gathered outside Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday morning to urge lawmakers to approve the bill. For the fifth year in a row, the group’s members donned shirts labeling themselves “water warriors” as they were led by the Delaware Nature Society’s Brenna Goggin.

“In politics, we always know the need. We have been very fortunate that we have had leaders show up and take the next step, not just identify the need, but take actually action to get that need addressed,” Goggin said. “We just need more of them … to say, ‘You know what, I support clean water. I’ve got clean water issues in my district, and my constituents deserve better.’ ”

Longhurst has more than 30 sponsors on the bill that was approved Wednesday afternoon by the House Natural Resources Committee in a 5-2 vote.

06/06/2019 - Wolf’s infrastructure plan, based on a natural gas severance tax, has bipartisan support — but not from leaders

After touting it across the state for months, lawmakers have finally introduced Gov. Tom Wolf’s ambitious infrastructure proposal as a concrete piece of legislation.

It has a large, bipartisan slate of sponsors in both chambers. But it lacks crucial support from GOP leaders.

The plan is intended to fund a range of infrastructure improvements, from roads to flood prevention.

Lawmakers would pay for it with $4.5 billion in bonds. They’d pay back the bonds over 20 years using money from a new severance tax on natural gas drillers, which would slide between .091 cents and .157 cents per thousand cubic feet of natural gas extracted, depending on market prices.

The plan doesn’t say what the interest rate would be. But an estimate from the governor’s office using a 5 percent rate has the commonwealth paying back $7.2 billion, total. A spokesman for the governor called that a “relatively liberal” estimate.

Sam Robinson, Wolf’s deputy chief of staff, said it’s worth it.

“If you can make these investments up front, that’s important because then people can use them, as opposed to waiting to sort of just pay as you go,” he said.

The administration said it has 99 cosponsors in the House and 25 in the Senate — just shy of enough votes to pass in both chambers.

Robinson said he is confident more Republicans will sign on.

“As members have a chance to look at the language and review all the great initiatives that are within this program, I think a lot of members are going to be interested in joining this legislation,” he said.

But leadership is against it.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said he still needs more details on how money will be spent.

And House Speaker Mike Turzai, a longtime natural gas booster, called it “irresponsible” and “anticompetitive.”

Turzai took issue with the bond payment model, and said he dislikes the plan for distributing the cash from the new tax.

Wolf has proposed forming a board to direct the spending. Three members would be appointed by the administration and the other four would be the leaders of the legislative caucuses. The board would need six votes to make spending decisions.

Turzai characterized the arrangement as a “debt-financed slush fund to be allocated at the whim of a new government board.”

The plan isn’t tied to the state budget, which is being negotiated. If the legislature takes it up, it likely won’t be until the fall.

Wolf has attempted to pass a severance tax annually since becoming governor. The GOP-controlled House and Senate have rejected the proposals every time.

06/06/2019 - Is Centralia’s Graffiti Highway art or vandalism?

An abandoned stretch of road brings thousands of tourists from across the United States to Centralia, Columbia County. Known as "Graffiti Highway," it is one of the last landmarks in the once-bustling mining town.

06/04/2019 - Washington County judge lifts order that prohibited publication of document in drilling suit

Media law experts say that such gag orders — which exercise what is called “prior restraint” on material before publication — are exceedingly rare.

06/04/2019 - Court document reveals Range Resources, other defendants agreed to $3 million settlement in Washington County contamination suit

A judge's order to resolve an impasse in the case revealed details of the settlement terms. StateImpact Pennsylvania and The Allegheny Front discovered the document, which was publicly available at the Washington County prothonotary's office.

06/03/2019 - Scientists racing to figure out how fast a glacier the size of Pennsylvania could melt

A Penn State researcher is taking part in a major effort between the U.S. and United Kingdom to better understand a section of the west Antarctic ice sheet that’s at risk of collapsing.

Thwaites Glacier is roughly the size of Pennsylvania and has the potential to contribute significantly to global sea level rise — an issue of critical importance to coastal communities around the world.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, recently returned from a research trip to Thwaites, where he and other scientists are trying to get a better handle on how fast it’s melting. Thwaites is close to one-and-a-half to two miles thick in places.

“It’s just an enormous amount of ice in this one glacier,” he said.

Scientists are projecting about two to two-and-a-half feet of sea level rise in the next century, but Anandakrishnan said Thwaites could add another three feet on top of that.

For example, two feet of sea level rise would flood eight to 10 blocks of northern Atlantic City, New Jersey according to a sea level rise viewer published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An additional three feet would flood most of the city.

Graphic: Tom Downing/WITF

Thwaites Glacier (in white) overlain with a red map of Pennsylvania.

Satellites have shown the glacier changing rapidly, but it’s in such a remote part of Antarctica that it’s difficult to study. The nearest permanently occupied research station is about 900 miles away. The four-person team he was with this past season lived in tents atop the glacier, to gather better information to plug into computer models.

“The problem they’re all suffering from is a lack of data from the actual condition at Thwaites and the ocean out in front of Thwaites,” he said of the models. “So, people have made guesses.”

He added that three feet of sea level rise from Thwaites is the worst-case scenario. It could only add a few inches, but that’s why having better data is of critical importance as communities plan for climate change.

“Is it a foot? Is it two feet? Is it three feet? It makes a huge difference for communities around the world.” he said. “The rise in sea level in Antarctica is not confined to Antarctica. It will raise the coastlines of New Jersey and Philadelphia as well.”

The focus of his recent work on Thwaites is to drill holes through the ice shelf and put instruments down to measure the circulation of the water underneath, to better understand how the glacier is interacting with the ocean. He worked with Kiya Riverman, a glacial hydrologist and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Oregon, and Mike Roberts and Andy Bond, two experienced mountaineer guides who helped the scientists navigate the treacherous terrain.

“This area is quite badly crevassed,” said Anandakrishnan “Within a few kilometers of our camp there were massive holes. Their job was to survey the area and make sure that that the places Kiya and I wanted to go do our work were safe to travel.”

Riverman had been on two previous Antarctic fieldwork trips, and said the team had a week of great weather, which allowed them to get most of their work done, but that was followed by four days of a pounding storm, which kept them stuck inside their tents. She estimates the winds may have reached 75 miles per hour.

“It was the first really big storm I’ve experienced in Antarctica ,” said Riverman. “I definitely had moments of curling up inside my sleeping bag imagining what could happen, but at some point that isn’t productive.”

Overall, she felt safe and trusted the mountaineers. “Sometimes we can do work from space with satellites and from the comfort of our chairs, but some measurements you just have to be on the ground. It’s worth the four of us going out there and having a rough couple of weeks to get these measurements, which will shape the science for decades to come.” she said. “I believe in this work, so even if it does push me to my limits sometimes, I will keep doing it.”

The National Science Foundation and the United Kingdom’s National Environmental Research Council announced last year they were joining forces on a $25 million, five-year research initiative at Thwaites involving nearly 100 scientists from around the world.

06/03/2019 - Pennsylvania’s had a lot of tornadoes this year. But scientists don’t know if there’s a climate change link

It’s already hard to predict whether tornadoes will pop up within a few hours’ time frame.

05/31/2019 - Judge bars release of document in gas drilling suit

A Washington County judge has issued a court order barring The Allegheny Front, StateImpact Pennsylvania and 90.5 WESA from publishing the content of a publicly available legal document obtained by a reporter for the news organizations, pending a hearing next week.

The legal document is an Aug. 30, 2018 Memorandum Order entered in the case of Stacey Haney and several of her Washington County neighbors.

The group sued gas-drilling company Range Resources in 2012 for allegedly contaminating their air, groundwater, and soil from activities related to fracking. The suit alleged Range and two contracted laboratories committed fraud and conspiracy by manipulating test results to obscure their findings from the plaintiffs.

The case was settled in 2018. The settlement reached at that time is filed under seal.

Washington County Prothonotary Joy Ranko said Thursday the memorandum order should not have been public. “This document was never scanned into the public database,” Ranko said.

But the document was publicly available over the course of at least two days, May 28 and May 29, on the Washington County Prothonotary’s Public Case File Database. Reid Frazier, a reporter for The Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania, printed it off the prothonotary printer at 25 cents a page.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been involved in ongoing litigation to get the court to unseal the settlement. Range Resources, however, is arguing that it should remain sealed. In early May, Judge Emery turned down a request by the gas driller to subpoena reporters and an editor of the Post-Gazette to “test the veracity” of the newspaper’s request.

When Range Resources attorneys learned that Frazier had a copy of the order, they sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Range Resources both informed Judge Katherine Emery of the release of the document. Emery then issued the injunction and set the hearing date. The injunction bars the news organizations from “directly or indirectly publishing, circulating, disseminating, disclosing, describing, duplicating, or otherwise sharing in any way contents of the Sealed Documents.”

The Haney case and lawsuit are detailed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Amity and Prosperity,” by the journalist Eliza Griswold.

A court date has been set for Tuesday, June 4 at 10 a.m. for a hearing on the order at the Washington County Courthouse.