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Friday, March 31, 2017

Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 5:01 PM

click to enlarge The top punch card was the first given out at Black Forge Coffee. The bottom card was launched last week. - CP PHOTO BY LISA CUNNINGHAM
CP photo by Lisa Cunningham
The top punch card was the first given out at Black Forge Coffee. The bottom card was launched last week.

When Black Forge Coffee House opened its doors in Allentown a year-and-a-half ago, the metal- and punk-themed space offered a customer loyalty punch card featuring the faces of much-maligned conservative characters like commentator Ann Coulter and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

It's easy to draw conclusions from the imagery on the punch cards. Due to the size of the hole-punch used, each coffee purchase equals a hole that resembles a bullet hole through the head.

But despite that bold statement, little fanfare surrounded these loyalty cards until last week, when Black Forge changed the lineup. In addition to the faces of Coulter and Santorum, customers were also greeted by President Donald Trump and former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cue the backlash.

Last Friday, WPXI aired a story on the punch cards, headlined "Coffee shop rewards card brewing up controversy" and highlighting some of the negative feedback the new cards were receiving on Facebook. The story was picked up by other news outlets, causing a snowball effect that sent people to Black Forge’s Facebook page in droves.

In the week since the shop, owned by Ashley Corts and Nick Miller, announced the new card on its Facebook page, the post has garnered more than 350 comments, and the number of reviews on the page has increased more than tenfold, to nearly 3,000. So far, despite the uproar, business has remained steady. But the owners have received threats both online and over the phone.

"We support our First Amendment right to free speech. We're not advocating violence," Corts told Pittsburgh City Paper at the coffee shop this week. "It's meant to be a political satire, but we really didn't think it would start a controversy."

The latest round of punch cards was printed on March 23, and by March 28, all 300 had been dished out. Before the backlash, Black Forge boasted a perfect five-star rating on Facebook. Now its rating has fallen to 3.7.

"Pretty much all of the reviews are from people from out of state," says Corts. "We did this to ourselves, but we're going to stand our ground. We're going to continue to be who we are. We're not going to change and we're not going to stop printing these cards. "

Traffic on the Facebook page has increased drastically. Many commenters say Black Forge's punch cards are a direct threat to Trump's life. (A Florida gun-supply store drew similar ire last year when it sold shooting targets with then-President Barack Obama's face on them. They also sold targets bearing the likenesses of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.) Others criticize what they see as Black Forge's liberal views. (Corts maintains the shop is nonpartisan.)

CP has spent hours poring over the reviews and comments on the page, but even a cursory glance reveals that most of the negative comments and reviews there are from out-of-town posters. While some of these posters at least attempt to paint a picture of a customer who has entered Black Forge and sampled the coffee, others don't even try to veil their purpose.

"Black Forge owners spread hate and disrespect for our country and its leaders. You should be ashamed of yourselves," Candice McNeely, of San Antonio, Texas, wrote yesterday.

McNeely’s is one of the more polite posts. Coffee lends itself to fecal comparisons, and plenty of commenters have taken the bait. But those comments are tame in comparison to others, like Daniel Smith from Friscoe, Texas, who claims, “There was fetus in my scone.”

"All we can do is sit back and laugh at the people who are saying nonsense, but it's their right," says Corts. "You're welcome to exercise your right not to come in here, but we won't turn anyone away.

"The worst part is the phone calls. They've threatened to burn our building down."

And nearly in tears, Corts told CP the worst messages she’s received are those calling Black Forge’s owners pedophiles.

"We're all on this earth together. We don't have to get along, but don't slander people you don't agree with," Corts says. "When people say 'You pee in your coffee,' that's funny because it's not true. They've never been here. But when you go out of your way to say something like that, it hurts."

click to enlarge Behind the counter at Black Forge - CP PHOTO BY LUKE THOR TRAVIS
CP photo by Luke Thor Travis
Behind the counter at Black Forge
Fortunately, the response hasn’t been all bad. Members of the Allentown community have offered support to Black Forge. A campaign was started to get actual Black Forge patrons to rate the place on Facebook and asks others to visit. Right now the number of five-star reviews on the page is double the number of one-star reviews. (Admittedly, some of the five-star reviews appear to be from out of town posters, too, but many are from Pittsburghers.)

Sales have been positively impacted as well. Black Forge usually does about $300 in sales in a day, but last Saturday, when the backlash and counter-campaign first picked up, it brought in more than $800.

"The support we've received from this has been amazing," Corts says. "People have been great."

And Corts believes that, regardless of political views, the Allentown and Greater Pittsburgh community know what the coffee shop stands for. The shop holds all-ages shows and performances and, above all, Corts says, it's an advocate for free speech.

Even before Black Forge opened its doors, it served as a meeting place for a neighborhood church group. And the owners continue to support veterans groups, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Planned Parenthood with donations. When there's a community event in Allentown, they’ve provided coffee.

Around the time of last year's election, Corts says, an elderly man who is one of the shop's regulars walked in wearing a "Make America Great Again" T-shirt and asked if he was still welcome. She didn't hesitate before saying yes.

"We welcome everyone through these doors. We're not partisan," Corts says. "The only thing we truly stand for is equality, truth and justice."

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 12:04 PM

We've always wanted to insert little computer chips and speakers into City Paper, so that when you open it, music from artists featured in the paper plays while you read about them (like a big old greeting card). But that's just not realistic. This is the second-best thing: a Spotify playlist featuring music from this week's issue. Listen up.

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 11:09 AM

"This performance is flawed," goes one of the voice-over lines repeated throughout this latest dance-theater offering from CorningWorks' Glue Factory Project.

click to enlarge Beth Corning and Donald Byrd in "What's Missing?" - PHOTO COURTESY OF WALSH PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo courtesy of Walsh Photography
Beth Corning and Donald Byrd in "What's Missing?"
As seen last night, the show, a collaboration between company founder and artistic director Beth Corning and Seattle-based dance legend Donald Byrd, is largely a reflective study of perception, expressed in a series of duets and solos.

The opening sequence establishes a relationship between the two characters, male and female, exploring a lived-in interdependence: Sometimes they move together, sometimes one must right the other, who's fallen over.

The solos deepen the characters. A notable one finds Corning working with the show's lone prop, a short wooden bench. Confused, tentative and fearful, she seems to be hoping the bench will serve as an anchor of some kind, but in the end finds it, too, provides no surety.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Posted By on Wed, Mar 29, 2017 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge In 2014, Rick Sebak was named City Paper's Best Media Personality - CP FILE PHOTO
CP file photo
In 2014, Rick Sebak was named City Paper's Best Media Personality
At a time when funding for public broadcasting is at risk, one Pittsburgh legend is looking to bring more programming to WQED through alternative means.

This week, Sebak launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a new series called NEBBY: Rick Sebak’s Tales of Greater Pittsburgh. The series will be comprised of six half-hour episodes featuring interesting things about the Pittsburgh region.

"Public broadcasting has always had to use creative ways to raise funds," Sebak says. "We make programs that no other network does. I like to celebrate Pittsburgh and I hope people are surprised by what we come up with."

The kickstarter campaign ends April 25 and has a goal of $113,000. As of this morning, nearly half of the funds have already been raised. Donation rewards can be earned for as little as $13 (getting you a "Nebby" button) and go as high as $5,000 (which gets you a private concert with the Beagle Brothers).

The Buhl Foundation has also contributed funds for the project.

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Posted By on Wed, Mar 29, 2017 at 10:09 AM

On March 24, Pittsburgh mayoral candidate John Welch issued a new campaign ad claiming that Mayor Bill Peduto had “misplaced priorities.” Welch said in a Facebook post adjoining the ad that Peduto is “putting bike lanes over the health of city residents.”

“Now I like bike lanes, but not that many people use them, but we all rely on clean and safe drinking water,” said Welch in the ad. “So for me it is a matter of priorities, and we can see now that his priorities are not our priorities.”

The bike advocates at Bike Pittsburgh take issue with Welch’s assertion. Scott Bricker, director at Bike Pittsburgh, wrote in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper that bike lanes serve a public-health need, as they provide safe passage for city cyclists and encourage people to ride and stay fit.

“Both funding for bike infrastructure and funding for clean drinking water are expenditures to keep Pittsburghers healthy and safe,” wrote Bricker. “Pitting one against the other is bad policy. Using the City's bike infrastructure budget isn't a real solution to the lead problem and Mr. Welch knows it.”

In fact, at a March 28 press conference, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner estimated the cost of replacing all the lead-service lines in the city could be around $25 million. And according to capital budget figures since Peduto came into office in 2014, his office has allocated — but not spent all of — about $216,000 a year in city bonds and funds towards bike-related projects. According to Bike Pittsburgh’s calculations, it would take 125 years to solve the city’s lead-water-pipe problems using bike funds at the level they are typically spent.

(Side note: Local news sources tend to write stories about how the city is allocating millions of dollars in funds for bike lanes. But according to the city's past four capital budgets, often not all of that money is spent because the projects never materialize; the funds are then carried over to the next year. Also, many news stories fail to mention that the bulk of bike-land funding in Pittsburgh consists of state and federal grants awarded to the city.)

Bricker wrote that Bike Pittsburgh also believes the city should tackle its lead problems, but said it’s not fair to pin those problems on bike-infrastructure funding.

“We’ve known lead has been a problem for human health for generations,” wrote Bricker. “But people should know that you just can’t solve this lead problem by taking away money for safe streets. There’s nowhere near enough money. What little money does exist for bike lanes is used to leverage state and federal transportation dollars which cannot be used to replace lead service lines.”

In a blog posted on Welch’s campaign website, Welch wrote, “As mayor of the city of Pittsburgh, I would work hard to ensure that the public health of the residents of our city rises to the highest priority possible. We deserve better as we strive to be a city where all can flourish.”

However, Welch hasn’t shared publicly what his specific plans would be to address the lead issue. At a March 22 press conference, when asked by reporters about his plan for restructuring PWSA to mitigate the lead issue and other problems, Welch told reporters to ask him again on May 17, the day after the upcoming primary election.

Bricker wrote that he feels Welch is using bike lanes as a “wedge issue” to take advantage of Pittsburgh voters who don’t fully understand the reasoning behind bike lanes. Bricker cites Downtown's Penn Avenue lane as a success story. The lane sometimes hosts more than 1,000 trips per day, and Bricker says about one quarter of morning traffic on the street is bike traffic. He also wrote the redesign of Penn Avenue Downtown has helped eliminate bottlenecks at the 16th Street Bridge and at 11th and 9th streets.

“He knows what he's doing,” wrote Bricker of Welch. “He's trying to score political points.”

Bricker asserted that Bike Pittsburgh doesn't endorse political candidates, but the group does encourage its members to vote. This year, Bike Pittsburgh is continuing its mayoral-petition program called “I Bike. I Walk. I Vote,” which asks people to sign petitions calling on candidates to pledge to make commitments to bike- and pedestrian-friendly policies. Bricker wrote that in 2013, Bike Pittsburgh garnered 3,000 signatures, with 80 percent of respondents being registered voters. Bricker noted that Peduto won election that year by only about 5,000 votes.

Of people who signed the petition, Bricker wrote, “They're educated and very civically engaged."

Update: Welch responded a day after the article was published with an email to CP writing "I specifically stated that I had no problem with bike lanes and even said as much in a private conversation with Scott Bricker. I want to set the record straight. I congratulate [Bike Pittsbugh] for standing up for bicyclists but who is standing up for city residents who rely on PWSA for safe drinking water?"

Welch then goes on in the email to accuse Bike Pittsburgh of selfishness writing "how dare [Bike Pittsburgh] make this issue about themselves?" and claiming that Bricker was defending Peduto because Bricker is a mayoral-appointee to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (a transportation and development-planning agency). Welch went on to write that his ad and words are less about bike lanes and more about drawing "attention to the poisoning of our children, and contrast the swiftness to which this mayor responded to the need for dedicated bike lanes with his inaction on a public health crisis."

Bricker says he stands by what he said originally citing again that Bike Pittsburgh does not endorse political candidates. "[Welch] is calling out our private conversation, but publicly he is dissing the work that we do," says Bricker, defending the advocacy that Bike Pittsburgh does to try and get more bike-friendly infrastructure in the city. "We can hold two opinions at the same time, we also don't want our children's water poisoned."

He also defends his position as an appointee on the SPC. "I am not beholden to the mayor," says Bricker. "I am confused by his statement. It's a service I am willing to do, because of my expertise. I don’t receive any money. Sometimes I receive headaches." (Welch also pointed out in his statement that he is also a mayoral appointee, Sports and Exhibition Authority, but  wrote in his statement that "I don't need to score political points, only [to] be bold enough to challenge the mayor.")

Bricker also questions why Welch is attacking a local advocacy a group that has has a long-standing presence in Pittsburgh and thousands of members. "I don't want to trade barbs in the media," says Bricker. "We have never been in this position before where people are trying to pit our issue against other city issues."

CP News Editor Rebecca Addison contributed to this blog.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 4:28 PM

click to enlarge Timeline of PWSA's lead issues - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
CP photo by Rebecca Addison
Timeline of PWSA's lead issues
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, partial replacement of lead service lines has been linked to an increased incidence of high blood lead levels in children. But partial replacement of lead service lines is exactly what's happening in Pittsburgh and other cities around the country right now.

"If you don't do [full replacements], you are ensuring that people are going to continue to be poisoned," Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said in an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper. "It's actually worse. By changing out just one part of the line, you're actually making the problem worse. You'd be better doing nothing at all."

Earlier today, at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Wagner called on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to halt all partial lead service-line replacements by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

"Hundreds of these dangerous partial replacements have already been performed throughout Pittsburgh, and the PWSA is slated to complete 1,500 by July of this year," Wagner said today. "When left to fend for themselves, families either cannot complete the replacement of the private side of their line because they cannot afford to do so, or will not because they don't understand the level of risk, and the fact that the partial work that has been done is in fact making the problem worse."

Lead tests of Pittsburgh's water have shown levels of lead above the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion. And as a result, Pittsburgh has been required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to replace seven percent of its lead service lines each year. However, the mayor's office says Pittsburgh is barred by the state Municipal Authorities Act from replacing the residential portion of the lines.

"The City is in the midst of an open, transparent and public process to evaluate the future of the PWSA, which includes looks at lead service-line issues, and the authority's crippling $1 billion in debt," Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff said in a statement responding to Wagner. "It appears the County Controller instead wants to preserve the status quo at the authority and push massive tax increases on City residents, all while taking cheap political shots at those actually working to address the authority's issues."

According to Wagner, of the 58 lead line replacements done in Lawrenceville last year, only one homeowner chose to replace the private portion of the line. Wagner says failure to replace the private portion of the line could be due to the fact that 52 percent of Pittsburgh homes are rentals where residents don't have the power to replace lines providing the water they drink.

She is calling on the mayor's office to take steps to replace the entire portion of each lead service line and says the process of replacing the private portion could be done for $25 million over the course of 5 years, or and estimated $1,200 per line.

Earlier this month, the Urban Redevelopment Authority approved  a low-interest loan program to help low-income residents pay for their lead service line replacements. But Wagner says the program has only been funded for 75 people, far less than the thousands of residents requiring lead line replacements.

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Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 2:21 PM

Music To Sweep To is a (sorta) weekly blog feature about music that is good to listen to while working. You can read previous entries here. If you have any ideas or complaints, you can email them to


Ginger Baker, tall dude, famed asshole and terrific drummer, went to Africa in the early 1970s. Cream had broken up a few years before, and after short stints playing with Blind Faith and his own group, Air Force, Baker moved to Lagos, Nigeria, opened a music studio and started working with legendary Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti.

You can read all about this story online, or watch all about it in the 1971 documentary Ginger Baker In Africa, which is how I first discovered Kuti, via a great class at Pitt called Music of Africa. (I don’t know if he’s still there, but it was taught by Oye Dosunmu.)

Before delving into Fela Kuti, it’s probably worth acknowledging the irony of celebrating an iconic black African artist via a white British one. (Ironic, though not that uncommon.) I remember Oye illustrating this contradiction by pointing to the fact that Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings were categorized as soul in CD stores (it was 2005, they still existed), but Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black — also recorded with the Dap Kings — was considered pop. That’s not a dig on Winehouse (RIP both of these phenomenal artists), but it’s just another example of how blackness in pop culture is interpreted as a statement, as other, and whiteness as default, neutral.

(Big up to Oye for teaching me about Jones, Antibalas and Daptone in general).

An unpleasant bulletpoint: Fela was super homophobic. There’s a song on his album with Baker called “Ye Ye De Small” which is a hateful and not-so-subtle reference to being disgusted by homosexuality. He did not keep the viewpoint a secret.

This is a tough issue.

I think everyone has to make up their own mind about their relationship to art made by artists whose opinions they find offensive. Eric Clapton said some super racist shit in the 1970s. Robert Wagner was adored by Hitler and his pals, but his operas are still pretty dope (also he died six years before Hitler was born, so …). Most recently, Dave Chappelle came out with two new specials that, while funny at parts, at times paint him as out of touch, arrogant, and old-school in the worst way.

I don’t think there’s a blanket approach that’ll work for everyone when it comes to separating art from artist, and artist from their views. Probably best to go on an artist-to-artist, issue-by-issue. (Oddly enough, Chappelle discusses this in his second special regarding his ambivalence towards Bill Cosby). So if you’d prefer to skip Fela altogether, that’s your call. We can still be friends.

OK, now that we’ve discussed systemic racism, homophobia and Bill Cosby, let’s talk about music.

Fela Kuti’s genre was Afrobeat. Definitions of that term vary but they all tend to include the words Africa, jazz and funk. He released music over four decades and his sound covered a lot of ground, but it was consistently political, exquisitely performed and funky. He’s got a few albums that are too upbeat for my tastes, particularly his ’69 Sessions, which veers a little too far into major-chorded James Brown-ish territory.

My favorite Fela stuff is dark, minor-chorded, minimal and glacially paced. That’s what you’ll find in this playlist. The shortest song is just under eight minutes. The tracks tend to open with a simple riff or minimal drum beat which guides the entire band for the duration, adding new elements on a strict four-bar schedule until the composition is loaded to the gills.

The do-not-miss tracks here: “No Agreement,” “Fear Not of Man” and “Sorrow Tears and Blood.” The horn line that comes in at 3:30 in “Fear Not” is one of the sickest moments in music history. (No. 2, if you're curious, Freddy Mercury and David Bowie's gibberish at the end of "Under Pressure.")

As far as music for sweeping goes, I can actually vouch for this. I work a part-time job that requires a fair amount of sweeping (as well as mopping, dusting, wiping things down), and this playlist soundtracks those tasks like a blanket on cold feet, or another, better-written analogy. The playlist is repetitive, engaging, balanced and dynamic in its production, and simply just really fun to listen to. I hope you enjoy.

Best if you work in: anything


By the way, our own Mike Shanley did a great interview with Ginger Baker in 2015. Read it.

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Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 1:48 PM

click to enlarge Steve O'Hearn operates his Donald Trump puppet - CP PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
CP photo by Bill O'Driscoll
Steve O'Hearn operates his Donald Trump puppet
Today's rainy installment of this weekly Downtown protest at the office of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was marked by the debut of a larger-than-life Donald Trump puppet created and operated as a side project by members of performance troupe Squonk Opera.

The puckishly named No You're The Puppet Theater found a gray-suited "Trump" (complete with flag lapel pin), perched on the shoulders of Steve O'Hearn, joining about 125 protesters at Firstside Park and then marching to the Grant Building, which houses Toomey's office.

A brief skit had someone calling Trump a puppet, and Trump (voiced by O'Hearn) bellowing back, "No, you're the puppet" — reprising an infamous exchange from Trump's final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton last year. O'Hearn operated the puppet partly by pulling on its overly long maroon necktie. In a sloppy gray wig and black-rimmed eyeglasses, O'Hearn himself looked remarkably like presidential adviser Steve Bannon.

click to enlarge Tuesdays With Toomey marchers today - CP PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
CP photo by Bill O'Driscoll
Tuesdays With Toomey marchers today
No You're the Puppet is distinct from Squonk Opera, the long-running, nationally touring Pittsburgh-based art-rock band and performance troupe whose work has long featured giant puppets and other outrageous props. O'Hearn and fellow Squonkers Jackie Dempsey and David Wallace have (again, as individuals, not troupe members) been regulars at Tuesdays With Toomey, designed to call out the senator's inaccessibility to the public and close allegiance to Trump's policies. Letters addressed to the senator were also delivered to his offices.

Tuesdays With Toomey have run weekly since January in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania towns, with protesters often turning up in the hundreds to demand that the senator meet with constituents, which he has so far refused to do (aside from a couple hastily called tele-town halls). Participants expressed concern about a range of issues, including health care: "No to Block Grant for Medicaid" and "Don't Compromise Seniors," read two signs.

On the sidewalk outside the Grant Building entrance, protesters chanted "Town hall! Town hall!" and cheered the defeat of the Republican-proposed health-care plan that failed to reach a vote in Congress last week.

Tuesdays with Toomey happens at noon every Tuesday.

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Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge Environmental advocates at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
CP photo by Ryan Deto
Environmental advocates at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse.
A new report released March 28 by the statewide environmental group PennEnvironment shows that for the past eight years, fracking companies in Pennsylvania have together committed 4,351 environmental and public-health violations.

That amounts to 1.4 violations per day in the state. This number is pretty significant as is, but PennEnvironment also pointed out that only 17 percent of those violations were issued a fine. Additionally, that average fine was only $5,263.

Since many of the oil and gas companies that were administered fines, like Chesapeake Energy, pull in billions of dollars in revenue each year, Stephen Riccardi of PennEnvironment says this is akin to charging 10 cents for a parking ticket. “There would be illegally parked cars in every handicap spot and probably cars littering the sidewalk,” said Riccardi at a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse. “If the penalty isn’t high enough, it won’t stifle illegal polluters.”

Riccardi says these low and infrequent penalties can actually set up a toxic environment in the state. “Sadly, the message is clear: It pays to pollute if you are fracking in Pennsylvania,” said Riccardi. “These violations pose serious environmental and public-health threats.”

Raina Rippel, of the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said doctors and health experts are just beginning to understand the health impacts fracking has on populations close to fracking well pads.

“Proximity to well pads has been associated with increases in a person’s risk for respiratory and neurological problems, as well as elevated risks of birth defects,” said Rippel.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a health-advocacy coalition, has recently called for a moratorium on fracking.

One example of a direct link between fracking and health issues is contaminated water. Riccardi cites Texas-based Range Resources which leaked pollutants into Brush Run in Washington County last year. He adds that Pennsylvania has identified 283 instances where drinking water has been contaminated due to fracking.

John Stolz, director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education, said there have been 9,400 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection since 2004, and more than 4,000 have been related to water contamination, according to a report from Public Herald, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization out of Coudersport, Pa.

“There is something going on, and we need the DEP to step up and hold the industry responsible,” said Stolz. “We need the industry to admit that there are some [environmental] challenges to fracking.”

Riccardi said PennEnvironment is calling for the state to restore adequate funding levels to the DEP, which has seen cuts for many years. (In 2008, the DEP budget was $229 million; in 2016, it was $148 million.) He said this can create more positions which can enforce environmental laws more frequently. Riccardi also said fines need to be increased for repeat violators.

For those looking to see increasing in fracking, this report comes at an inopportune time. Recently released census figures for 2016 show the Pittsburgh region losing thousands of residents for the third straight year. Some believe if the fracking industry were to return to levels it saw in the early part of the decade, it could help build the population back up.

Riccardi said that in the long term, fracking isn’t a good idea for the region.

“We don’t see fracking as a long-term sustainable investment in communities in Pennsylvania,” said Riccardi. “Really, we see it as an existential threat to the health of Pennsylvanians and to the safety of our environment.”

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Posted By on Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 3:50 PM

Photo courtesy of Shervin Lainez/Bradley Hale

Minus the Bear has been around for 16 years. Highly Refined Pirates, released in 2002, begins with vocalist Jake Snider crooning, “And then we all bought yachts.” It’s a cheeky intro and far cry from the four-piece’s reality at that time: traveling in a 15-passenger van, sleeping on kitchen floors, partying and trying to seize the moment, not knowing how long it would last.

The moment is ongoing, it turns out. The band has made a living from its work and now has 12 records on the books.

But after its 11th release, 2015's Lost Loves, the group had some soul-searching to do. Longtime drummer Erin Tate had to leave the band for medical reasons, and the remaining members were coming to terms with major life changes like marriage and fatherhood.

“We all did a lot of asking questions and kind of had to dig deep, being 15 years on. We were asking ourselves, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we doing it? Is this something we still even want to do?’” said bassist Cory Murchy.

“Luckily, the answer was yes.”

When I talked to bassist Murchy on the phone, the band was hanging out in Charlotte, N.C., almost halfway through a month-and-a-half of touring. Despite all of the changes in the band’s collective life over the past few years, he sounded relaxed and happy.

“We still really love each other, and on this tour we’re really enjoying the music. It’s a powerful thing,” he said.

The band is touring for its latest release, Voids. The album reflects a lot of the aforementioned conflicts, with darker, moodier lyrics and themes of loss infiltrating the innovative grooves and riffs that helped cultivate Minus the Bear’s following to begin with.

Even though the band is in a happier place now, performing those morose songs is no burden.

“The thing is, for me, a lot of these songs are therapeutic. Being able to play them every night helps me exorcise those feelings and demons, and it’s enjoyable to do it because we’ve fully worked through that shit. We’ve spent the last few years working on ourselves and each other,” said Murchy.

The band is closer than ever, despite its members living across the globe, in Seattle, Tacoma and London. On this tour, rather than party or explore on their own, the members are spending most of their free time together, hanging out, talking and enjoying each other’s company.

Just as the personal and musical lives of the band have ebbed and flowed over those 16 years, so has the fan base. No two records sound quite alike, so the amorphous fan base represents people with musical interests across the spectrum of MTB’s sound.

“I personally love playing the older material and looking out to see people in the crowd singing along, like when we play ‘Pachuca Sunrise.’ To know those people have been with us for 12 years is so humbling,” said Murchy.

Ultimately, the band has accomplished a lot in 16 years. But the band has more music to make, and Voids represents the beginning of a new era in MTB’s songwriting.

“We still have something to say and music to write. We still believe in ourselves,” said Murchy. “We’re not done creating yet.”

Minus the Bear performs with Beach Slang and Bayonne at Mr. Smalls on April 1. The all-ages show is at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $24.

Mr. Smalls is located at 400 Lincoln Ave., in Millvale.

For more information, call 412-821-4447 or see

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