Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Monthly discussion series Speakeasy Science begins tonight

Posted By on Wed, Oct 15, 2014 at 11:56 AM

An informal talk by a wind-power expert from Carnegie Mellon begins CMU's new series held at bars and cafes. Danielle Fox has details on this event at Biddle's Escape in Program Notes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Buses from Pittsburgh to People’s Climate March

Posted By on Fri, Sep 12, 2014 at 12:11 PM

For weeks, activists have been touting the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March, in New York City, as the largest rally ever demanding that government take action on climate change.

If you’d like to join the tens of thousands expected to march, two local groups have organized a bus trip from Pittsburgh.

The Sierra Club Allegheny Group and the Thomas Merton Center have chartered a pair of buses to leave from Edgewood Town Center way early that day — 3 a.m. — to arrive in time for the 11:30 a.m. march kicking off from Columbus Circle. (The return trip is set to arrive back in Pittsburgh at midnight that same day.)

The three-mile march — expected to include representatives from more than 1,000 environmental, social-justice, union and faith-based groups, including the likes of 350.org — coincides with the Global Day of Action, timed to precede the Sept. 23 U.N. Climate Summit.

Scientists tell us that climate change’s effects are becoming more obvious by the day, from rising oceans to drought, floods and other extreme weather — not to mention other health effects. Activists are calling for big reductions in carbon emissions — bigger even than those recently proposed by the EPA.

And climate activists say that while the time to act was yesterday, the sooner we start cutting back on greenhouse gasses, the less the trauma future generations will face.

“My [individual] actions don’t pressure our political leaders to find a solution [to climate change] on the collective level,” says Warwick Powell, a leader of the Pittsburgh bus trip, in a statement. “What will is The People’s Climate March …, which is an invitation to all of us to change everything.”

Activists feel the movement to confront climate change is growing, and the Sept. 21 march will be a big step.

The round-trip from Pittsburgh to the march costs $68. You can register here.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Experts say Pittsburgh triathletes exposed to unsafe levels of fecal bacteria

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 5:32 PM

When around 200 triathletes started plunging into the Allegheny River at 6:45 a.m. Sunday, a chart posted by race organizers near the starting line suggested the water quality was improving.

But the chart's data was 24 hours out of date. And the state Department of Environmental Protection said today the actual level of bacteria in the water likely exceeded what it considers to be safe for swimming.

The chart was created by the event's host, Friends of the Riverfront, and was a response to athletes' complaints that they weren't adequately informed about water safety, especially since sewage backups have long plagued the event. On the morning of the race, the chart showed a downward trend in bacterial levels in the river, with 185 colonies per 100 mililiters on Sunday. But the lab cultures on which such numbers are based require 24 hours to grow, so the 185 figure actually referred to bacterial levels the previous day — before sewers likely backed up into the river following a rainstorm Saturday night.

Like many cities with aging infrastructure, Pittsburgh has a combined sewer system, meaning stormwater can overwhelm the system that carries raw sewage. When that happens, fecal-related bacteria can flow untreated directly into the river. According to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's overflow monitoring system, that's exactly what happened between 6:32 and 9:32 the night before the race. And indeed, when Friends of the Riverfront posted the Sunday numbers a day after the race, they showed bacteria levels one-third higher than those triathletes had seen on the chart.

Bacteria counts posted near starting line
  • Photo courtesy of Sarah Quesen
  • Bacteria counts posted near starting line

In small lettering at the top, the race-day chart did acknowledge that the chart displayed the previous day's readings, but some expressed concern the message wasn't clear.

"You think they just tested it that day. I think that’s what any normal logical person would assume," says Chris Mann, a 39-year-old Bloomfield resident who competed in the triathlon.

"The chart gave people a false sense of security," says Sarah Quesen, a leader of the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club's open swimming program, and a volunteer at Sunday's race. She says she has regularly complained about a lack of information about water safety. "It’s the lack of transparency that really gets to me."

"The poster was a naïve idea," acknowledges John Stephen, founder of Friends of the Riverfront. "I just decided to put that together in the past week, and in hindsight, I regret doing that."

Concern about sewer overflows prior to race time have been "a consistent issue with this particular event for a couple years," says Jim Wrubel, president of the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club. Wrubel says participation in the race has been falling — this Sunday's event had 208 finishers, down from 345 the previous year — and he ascribes the decrease to concerns about sewage in the water. Wrubel describes the chart used on Sunday as "misleading." If event organizers don't provide better water safety information, Wrubel says, he'll likely pull his organization's support of the event.

Continue reading »

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

EPA Carbon-Emissions Hearings

Posted By on Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 2:09 PM

Here’s a dispatch from the first two hours of this week’s public hearings on a proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Pittsburgh is one of four cities hosting hearings, and so many people signed up to speak that the EPA added a second day of all-day hearings — and then added a second room for each of those sessions in Downtown’s William S. Moorhead Federal Building. The rule is the first national attempt to limit emissions of carbon, the main greenhouse gas behind climate change.

For much of the morning, the 13th-floor hearing room was crowded by a few dozen guys in the green-camo T-shirts of the United Mine Workers union, which opposes the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. But of the first 24 speakers to address the hearing panel, 17 supported the plan. Several, including representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and the American Lung Association, even called for stronger regulations.

Because coal is the source of 75 percent of all carbon emissions from U.S. power plants, the Clean Power Plan would in effect restrict how much coal we can burn. Supporters argued that in addition to helping slow climate change, the new rules would reduce other air pollutants of the sort that lead to asthma, for instance — as well as lessening the dangers posed by rising temperatures and fiercer storms. Several spoke of a “moral obligation” to address climate change.

“It is an ethical decision as to whether we leave our children a living earth or an earth that has been devastated by fossil-fuel combustion,” said Patricia DeMarco, a visiting researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.

And Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper told the panel, “Reducing carbon emissions is a matter of public health.”

Continue reading »

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rally Tomorrow for Carbon-Pollution Rules

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 2:20 PM

Public officials join environmental groups Downtown tomorrow morning to support the U.S. EPA’s proposed limits on carbon emissions from power plants, meant to reduce air pollution and fight climate change.

The rally, to be held outside the August Wilson Center, coincides with the start of two days of EPA hearings on the Clean Power Plan, being held around the corner, at the William S. Moorhead Federal Building. Pittsburgh is one of just four cities hosting such hearings.

Speakers at the rally in support of the rules include Mayor Bill Peduto, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper and representatives from groups including the Sierra Club PA, PennFuture, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

The rules primarily affect coal-fired power plants. Carbon emissions can be cut by reducing energy consumption, increasing the efficiency of power plants, and moving to energy sources that emit less carbon. Lower emissions of soot and of the chemicals that go into forming smog, would follow suit.

According to the EPA, by the year 2030, the new limits would prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and as many as 150,000 asthma attacks in children annually.

Emissions of carbon dioxide are the primary driver of human-caused climate change. The EPA’s rules would help reduce carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This is the first attempt to limit carbon emissions nationally.

The rally begins at 11 a.m. at the Wilson Center, at 980 Liberty Ave.

If you are unable to comment in person to the EPA, you can do so in writing until Oct. 16. For more information, see www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fast continues at West Virginia capitol; civil disobedience planned

Posted By on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Today is Day 17 of what 85-year-old activist Roland Micklem calls an “open-ended fast” for the environment at the State Capitol building in Charleston, W.V.

Micklem and Roselle on Day 16 of their fast
  • Photo courtesy of Catherine Dees
  • Micklem and Roselle on Day 16 of their fast
Micklem and veteran environmental campaigner Mike Roselle are fasting outside the office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to draw attention to the environmental damage and health effects caused by practices like mountaintop-removal mining. And they say their next step might be civil disobedience.

Reached by phone this morning, Micklem and Roselle said they were feeling strong after more than two weeks of nothing but water, juice and coffee. (They’d been accompanied for the first two weeks of the fast by Pittsburgh-based activist Vince Eirene.)

Micklem, who has fasted for the environment before, said he felt “much better than I expected to be feeling” after 17 days. The army veteran and retired science teacher is a Virginia native who now lives in New York. Roselle is a co-founder of Earth First! A decade ago, he founded the West Virginia-based Climate Ground Zero, an anti-mountaintop-removal mining initiative.

The men hold their vigil at the capitol building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (and for four hours daily on weekends), and in the evening retire to a motel.

So far, “We’ve gotten to know practically everybody who works there,” said Roselle. They’ve even gotten some press coverage.

Continue reading »

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Organic farmer seeks to halt natural-gas facility

Posted By on Fri, Jul 18, 2014 at 1:48 PM

A prominent area farmer is appealing for help to prevent a natural-gas compressor station from being sited next to his property.

Don and Becky Kretschmann have run their 80-acre organic Kretschmann Farm in Beaver County for 40 years, and their produce feeds hundreds of local households through a subscription program. But Don Kretschmann says that siting the proposed compressor station less than a half-mile from his fields would industrialize the rural setting, risk contamination of his crops, and generally threaten his business.

“It has us very nervous,” said Kretschmann in a phone interview yesterday. “People trust the integrity of that food. It’s as safe as you can get it. Even the perception or the suspicion can be a problem” if customers believe the food might be contaminated.

In addition to pollution from the compressor station itself, Kretschmann says he is concerned about increased truck traffic to and from the station. The road that accesses the proposed station is narrow and lightly traveled, he says.

The Pike Compressor Station is proposed by Cardinal PA Midstream, LLC. The siting must be approved by the New Sewickley Township board of supervisors.

Compressor stations pressurize gas from nearby wellsites so it can be sent through pipelines. Hundreds of such stations have been built in the region since the Marcellus Shale boom began, in 2008. Neighbors have complained about odor and noise, and researchers have found that compressor stations emit such pollutants as volatile organic compounds, benzene and other toxic chemicals.

The gas industry contends that living by compressor stations is safe.

Kretschmann says that while many of his neighbors have signed drilling leases, he and his wife have refused. He notes the irony that while some farmers sign leases because they are in bad shape financially, “Here is a farm that’s economically very viable” but “threatened by industrial use in an agricultural area.”

Kretschmann says another property adjacent to his hosted a well starting late last year, and that it caused light and noise pollution during the drilling phase.

Kretschmann, a former member of the New Sewickley board of supervisors, spoke against the compressor station at a July 3 municipal hearing. The issue was continued to July 23.

Kretschmann is asking his customers and others in the community to write to the township board in advance of that meeting to voice their concern. Emails can be sent to manager@newsewickley.com. Kretschmann requests that senders cc kretschmann@verizon.net

The New Sewickley Township municipal hearing is at 6:30 p.m. Wed., July 23, at the Big Knob Grange, 336 Grange Road, in Rochester, Pa.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Green Workplace Challenge

Posted By on Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 5:19 PM

Sustainable Pittsburgh recently announced the top performers in its latest Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge. The results, while welcome, also suggest how far we have to go on sustainable use of resources.

The year-long competition asked businesses, nonprofits, municipal governments and universities to see which of them could improve most in energy and water usage, reduction of waste, and transportation. It also provides technical assistance on how to do so. More than 100 organizations took the 2013-14 challenge, which is meant to raise awareness as well as save resources.

Participants ranged from megacorps to small nonprofits.

Participants' initiatives included everything from installing more efficient boilers to switching to LED lights and having employees eat on china instead of disposable plates. In total, Challenge participants saved millions of dollars on their energy bills, and millions of gallons of water.

Continue reading »

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

More than 200 protest PNC's Financing of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Posted By on Thu, Jul 3, 2014 at 4:45 PM


More than 200 protesters led by the Philadelphia-based Earth Quaker Action Team converged on downtown PNC Bank branches this afternoon before rallying at the Bank’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue to protest the lender’s continued financing of mining companies that engage in Mountaintop Removal coal mining (MTR).

A lot of the group came in on buses from California University of Pennsylvania where members of the Quaker faith are gathering for the annual Friends General Conference. The group has been protesting PNC for years to urge them to divest in MTR.

MTR is a form of strip-mining practiced in West Virginia and elsewhere. The process lops off the tops of mountains to get the coal beneath; dislodged rock is frequently dumped into nearby valleys. Environmentalists say the process harms wildlife, drinking water and community health.

At PNC’s Fifth Avenue branch, several members of the group — which ranged in age from “four to 84” — sat in silent prayer outside the door while other members attempted to get inside. The door was locked with a security guard and an undercover city police officer on hand to prevent protesters from entering.


From there the group moved to the front of PNC headquarters to sing songs and left messages for PNC in chalk on the sidewalk and on a wall dubbed as one of the largest “green walls” in the country. The protesters disagreed.


Kate Sundberg, 16, traveled here from Florida to attend both the conference and the PNC protest. She was also on hand at the bank’s shareholder meeting in Tampa in April when EQAT protested there as well. And although there aren’t even any mountains in her home state, Sundberg says, “I still care about clean air and water.” She and her family visited an MTR site in West Virginia on the way to Pennsylvania.




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Former Miner Speaks Tonight on Life in Coal Country

Posted By on Tue, Jul 1, 2014 at 10:18 AM

While the environmental risks of fracking are more in the news lately, coal still supplies nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity, and mining it continues to pollute the land and endanger the health of coal-country residents.

The Mullins Family
  • The Mullins Family
Nick Mullins, a former fourth-generation underground coal-miner from Georges Fork, Va., brings his spring Breaking Clean Tour of the eastern U.S. to town when he speaks tonight at the First Unitarian Church, in Shadyside.

Mullins writes the blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner, which honors his coal-mining heritage while exploring how to move beyond it in pursuit of social justice.

On their 13-state tour, Mullins, his wife, Rustina, and their two young children are sharing their experiences living in the heart of coal country.

Mullins is critical of practices such as mountaintop-removal coal-mining, a form of strip-mining that blows as much as several hundred feet off the top of a given mountain to get at the coal beneath — then typically dumps the debris into a nearby valley, burying the stream there. The practice has turned forested mountains into flattened wastelands, and degraded more than 1,000 miles of streams in Appalachia.

“We were raised knowing the coal companies were only around to make a profit, not to make the lives of Appalachian people better,” he writes on the Breaking Clean website. “Today, this fact is as true as ever, so I left the mines to do what I can to save Appalachia for future generations and to give my kids a fighting chance at a better life.”

The First Unitarian Church is located at 605 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. The talk is at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

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