Philadelphia Inquirer. July 15, 2021.

Editorial: Fracking’s use of EPA-approved toxic chemicals shows again that regulators prioritize industry over health

For years, evidence has mounted that fracking is at least associated with adverse health effects, including a rare cancer cluster among children in Western Pennsylvania. Instead of stopping potentially risky activity, states like Pennsylvania that sit on gas-abundant shale formations have been commissioning studies and allowing drilling to continue.

In other words, fracking has been declared safe until proven otherwise — at risk to Pennsylvanians and residents of other fracking-heavy states.

That would have been bad enough. But a bombshell report this week revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed oil and gas companies to use toxic chemicals in their fracking fluids despite warnings from government scientists about the potential dangers.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of thousands of human-made chemicals that don’t break down, earning the nickname “forever chemicals.” Among them are PFOA and PFOS, which according to the EPA have been linked to cancer, liver, and immune problems, and impact on fetuses and breastfeeding babies.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Physicians for Social Responsibility, a health-care professional environmental advocacy group, found that in 2011 the EPA approved the use of PFAS and PFAS precursors — chemicals that break down into PFAS — in fracking. It found that these chemicals have been used in more than 1,200 wells in six states between 2012 and 2020.

Physicians for Social Responsibility couldn’t find evidence that PFAS or their precursors have been used in fracking in Pennsylvania, but that should give Pennsylvanians little comfort. Pennsylvania law allows oil and gas companies to exempt from public disclosure the chemicals they use under the guise of trade secrets. And the same companies that have been found to use these chemicals in other states, such as Chevron and Exxon, also drill wells in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told this board it can identify the chemicals registered as trade secrets — a list of about 430 substances. In that case, DEP should immediately audit the list and publicly disclose whether any PFAS or their precursors have been used in Pennsylvania fracking.

PFAS are a known problem in Pennsylvania waters, with tests suggesting that they pollute 72% of the sampled water in Philadelphia’s collar counties. Some physicians say no level of PFAS in water is safe.

When the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested commonwealth water sources for PFAS in 2019, it focused on areas where contamination was deemed likely, such as near military bases. At the time, the connection to fracking was not public. There was no testing in some fracking-heavy areas like Washington County.

The DEP doesn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the revelation. Asked by this board to comment on the latest findings, a DEP spokesperson responded: “DEP continues to investigate the potential impact of PFAS in the environment and is in the process of developing draft regulations to address them.”

The lack of any more specific comment by DEP, or comment by Gov. Tom Wolf, to the potential contamination of Pennsylvania water with toxic “forever chemicals” should be shocking. But it’s not.

The story of PFAS in fracking is about multibillion-dollar oil and gas corporations’ management having more sway over the EPA than the people it is intended to protect. That’s also largely the story of fracking in Pennsylvania. In 2019, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report that blasted DEP for being too cozy with the oil and gas industry.

The to-do list to respond to these revelations is long. Pennsylvania started a rulemaking process around PFAS in 2019 that needs acceleration. State Sen. Katie Muth told the board the EPA should promptly test water sources and drilling fluid waste sites in Pennsylvania for PFAS and other contaminants — we agree, and DEP should be involved as well. Dr. Ned Ketyer, a Pittsburgh-based pediatrician and board member of Pennsylvania’s Physicians for Social Responsibility, told this board the revelation should lead to an immediate moratorium on fracking. At minimum, law should change to demand full disclosure of all chemicals used throughout the life cycle of a natural gas well.

The EPA, in prioritizing industry over its mandate to protect the environment, has infringed on Pennsylvania’s right to pure water and our health and safety — another institution to do so for the benefit of fracking, a declining industry propped up by subsidies. It’s past time to declare fracking unsafe until industry can prove otherwise.

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York Dispatch. July 20, 2021.

Editorial: It’s just a mask

For God’s sake, it’s just a mask. Just a simple cloth that covers the nose and mouth and has been proven to dramatically cut down on the spread of COVID-19.

What’s more, no one is mandating masks any more. People, including schoolchildren, are free to go into any school, business, church or other public place without a face covering.

And no school districts in York County are suggesting that students will have to wear masks when they return to school in the fall. As health and safety plans are being passed, districts are saying no to mask mandates and that they will consider guidelines from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when making any changes.

But for many parents, that assurance isn’t good enough. West Shore parents called the district’s plan “unacceptable,” because it “leaves the door open” for future mandates. They asked the board to give parents the power to choose whether their children wear masks at school.

One parent at West Shore said she pulled her son out of a school there because she is convinced the district will require masks by fall. Another parent at Eastern York said she didn’t care if her kids catch COVID-19 or if the district loses state money by defying mandates, as long as the kids are in class in person and not wearing masks.

Seriously? You would rather pull your children out of school than have them wear a mask, and the school board saying they don’t have to wear a mask isn’t good enough for you?

You would rather have your children contract a highly contagious and serious disease as well as have your district lose state funding rather than have children wear a simple mask in class?

There are plenty of other things mandated by schools that these parents presumably go along with. There is a list of vaccinations children must have before enrolling, to make sure that diseases like measles, mumps and rubella are kept under control. In Pennsylvania, about 3% of schoolchildren have an exemption and do not receive vaccines, according to the CDC, leaving 97% of children going along with the mandate.

Then there are the various drills schools put kids through. The fire drills, the bad weather drills. And don’t forget the active shooter drills, where children are taught to block doors and the best places to hide if there is a dangerous person in the building. These lessons came in really handy for younger congressional staffers on Jan. 6, by the way.

Presumably all the parents in the districts are OK with their children going through the trauma of squeezing into a closet with their classmates and being completely silent while their teacher turns off the lights and school officials rattle doors to make sure they’re locked.

And yet the possibility that their children someday, maybe, might possibly have to wear a mask during class is the hill they’re fighting on. Even when school boards say they don’t plan to require masks.

Perhaps we need to look at the bigger picture here. There is a global pandemic that is still going on. Cases locally have dropped, but the virus is still around, and less than half of the population of York County is fully vaccinated.

Children will be sitting in classrooms this fall. School boards are saying they will not have to wear masks, but that could change as conditions evolve.

What’s the best way to ensure that your child can go to school mask free? Get your shots and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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Altoona Mirror. July 15, 2021.

Editorial: Furloughs at NS shop concerning

Precision Scheduled Railroading, which Norfolk Southern began to implement in fall 2018, apparently is the culprit behind another troubling jobs cut exacted at Altoona’s Juniata Locomotive Shop.

Norfolk Southern’s furloughing of 86 shop employees on July 9 — and eliminating an additional 14 jobs through attrition — has left Mountain City residents wondering how much of a future might exist for the shop.

As a result of the latest action, the shop’s employee roster has shrunk to about 400 names; after NS laid off 100 employees in September 2019, 650 workers remained.

Highly skilled, dedicated workers who always have been an asset to the company’s delivery of service have been cast aside as the result of an operational concept that has yet to be fully time-tested.

Precision Scheduled Railroading, pioneered by the late Canadian Pacific Railroad CEO Hunter Harrison, is built around using fewer trains and holding them to tighter schedules, in order to boost profits and stock prices.

On the surface, from a freight-business and stockholder perspective, that might seem desirable. However, in the changing economy triggered in part by the coronavirus pandemic, it is reasonable to be skeptical about whether Precision Scheduled Railroading will be able to meet new, evolving challenges over the long term.

The loss of experienced, highly skilled workers will make it difficult for Norfolk Southern if needs arise to increase production at the shop.

The current NS decision-making continues to be a matter of deep concern for this community and its environs. The more the local operation is scaled back, the weaker its ability to enhance the railroad’s best interests on both the equipment and financial fronts.

Worse, each time the railroad makes a cut like the one announced July 9, the more the specter of total closure wreaks its ugly head.

Unfortunately, the tough talk of some politicians reacting to the latest furlough news might be too little, too late. Since the implementation of PSR began, there should have been more constructive, proactive discussions within the community, as well as exploratory dialogue with company leaders about how the locomotive shop can remain a viable NS entity.

This is not meant to imply that there is little or no hope for the future. Rather, it is to point out that the task ahead is destined to be more difficult than it would have been a couple of years ago.

All across America, businesses and industries are making tough decisions negatively affecting not only dedicated workers, but their families as well.

For Altoona and its locomotive shop, finding a way to repurpose the facility or add work to it within the railroad environment — while keeping intact at least what remains of the locomotive operation — must be the utmost priority. All attempts possible must be put forth to prevent the uprooting of more employees and families.

Altoona must remain dedicated to helping Norfolk Southern remain a strong entity amid this nation’s changing railroad landscape, but NS should be committed to working with Altoona as well.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 18, 2021.

Editorial: Redistricting amendment shows Harrisburg hypocrisy

Political hypocrisy is rarely in short supply in Harrisburg, but a recent move by the Senate State Government Committee deals it in spades. While placing some guardrails on how the state’s congressional districts will be redrawn, the Republican majority removed virtually all of the proposals for transparency when it comes to how state legislative districts are determined.

The assurances from legislative leaders about transparency and fairness in the once-in-a-decade process to redraw district lines have given way once more to political expediency. And the public again would have a limited say in how state lawmakers shape their own districts.

The bill proposed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, included proposals sought by anti-gerrymandering groups such as FairDistricts PA. Having lost the battle in the Legislature to have congressional and legislative districts drawn by an independent citizens commission, the group focused instead on measures that opened up the process to the public.

Ms. Boscola’s bill included requirements for public meetings and the allowance for public comment on how districts should be formed. But an amendment by state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, removed all proposed reforms to the legislative redistricting process while keeping many of them for congressional redistricting. The bill with Mr. Argall’s amendment passed the State Government Committee on a near party-line vote.

Mr. Argall offered a rather dubious rationale for his changes: He said the bill had a better chance of approval if it focused solely on congressional redistricting rather than the legislative seats as well.

But the congressional redistricting already has some built-in checks and balances, namely that the Republican Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will have to agree on the new map, which will include the loss of one congressional seat this year.

The bill would require both the House and Senate State Government committees to hold at least four public hearings around the state on congressional redistricting and to develop a system for sharing public comments, as well as proposed citizen-submitted maps. The committees would also have to explain how the proposed maps follow state and federal criteria.

State Republican leaders recently unveiled a website for constituents to weigh in on congressional redistricting. They can submit comments and eventually submit their own proposed congressional district maps. There are also plans for a series of regional public hearings.

All of which is a step forward from the behind-closed-doors deal-making that went on previously in the state’s redistricting process. A decade ago, Republican lawmakers revealed and passed a new congressional map in less than two weeks with no public comment.

But the same requirements for congressional districts approved by the committee should have been included in the drawing of state House and Senate districts. Instead, those decisions would be left to a five-person commission of legislative leaders and an appointed outside chairman. It amounts to lawmakers retaining control of the decision-making when it comes to shaping their own districts.

If lawmakers want to do what is right in how district lines are drawn, any proposed requirements should apply to both congressional and legislative districts.

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Stroudsburg Pocono Record. July 19, 2021.

Editorial: Time to rein in PSERS

Adding transparency to Pennsylvania’s two pension systems — one for public school employees and one for other state employees — has been something of a crusade for state Rep. Brett R. Miller, a former public school guidance counselor.

After all, the four-term Lancaster County Republican is trying for a third consecutive session to pass a bill that’d give the general public a more detailed picture of fees, costs and expenses associated with investments and allow citizens to more easily follow what the systems’ boards are doing.

The third time ought to be the charm, particularly as PSERS — the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System — provides ample justification for Miller’s bill at every turn.

PSERS has spent 2021 lurching clumsily from one public relations debacle to the next. This year, PSERS:

- Learned that a consultant’s error overstated the performance of the system’s investments.

- Unceremoniously raised pension contributions from all school employees hired in the last decade.

- Got itself investigated by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania purportedly over both the consultant’s error and some curious real estate investments PSERS has made since 2017 in the City of Harrisburg.

- Got sued by one of its own board members, who claimed she couldn’t get substantive answers to legitimate questions she posed about investment procedures and controls.

- Turned away an effort by several trustees to have its executive director Glen Grell and investment chief James Grossman fired.

PSERS is a system that’s practically begging for enhanced scrutiny. After all, it manages $64 billion in net assets — and those are taxpayer dollars — on behalf of nearly 500,000 active and retired public school teachers and staff.

Miller’s bill calls for livestreaming of all PSERS and SERS board meetings and the archiving of unedited copies of those streams on their websites for at least three years. It’d also require PSERS and SERS to publish nonconfidential documents reviewed by the board there as well.

The websites would also need to annually publish detailed and itemized data concerning fees and expenses paid to all investment managers and broken down into categories such as base management fee, profit share, performance fee, incentive fee and carried interest. “Carried interest” is a substantial yet often underreported amount fund managers siphon off from what’s generated by alternative investment vehicles like private equity, real estate and hedge funds.

The bill would also require PSERS and SERS to break down the performance of all investments by asset class and manager and provide an accounting of all travel or other expenses incurred by the systems’ staff and show what’s been paid for by the investment managers, funds or consultants.

All of this sounds great to us. In fact many of the requirements of Miller’s House Bill 1671 come straight from the unimplemented recommendations contained in a nearly 400-page report drafted in 2018 by Pennsylvania’s Public Pension Management and Asset Investment Review Commission.

Commissioned by Gov. Tom Wolf, the PPMAIRC was led by state Rep. Mike Tobash, a Republican representing portions of Schuylkill and Dauphin counties, and PA Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Democrat.

We’d humbly suggest that had their recommendations been implemented through the previous iteration of Miller’s legislation, PSERS might not be suffering through a year that has shaken public confidence in the system’s stewardship of billions of taxpayer dollars.

That Miller’s legislation failed to get passed in two previous sessions seems to have nothing to do with partisan politics. The House passed it unanimously in the 2017-2018 session before it lost momentum in the state Senate and the current version is co-sponsored by three Democrats.

The loudest voice in opposition to the increased regulation and oversight has been PSERS’ own executive director. In 2018 testimony in front of the PPMAIRC, Glen Grell strenuously pushed back on suggestions that PSERS was hiding fees or wasting assets and called PSERS “a leader in fee transparency.”

He also bristled at the prospect of legislative interference and called for the PSERS board “to exercise greater autonomy and agility in its operations.”

”(W)e urge caution in any legislation to restrict the management of either fund by its respective board,” Grell testified. “Frankly, when the General Assembly has acted on pension matters in the past, the results have ranged from modestly helpful to disastrous.”

As much as Grell seems to want to avoid legislative meddling in his business, we believe this year proves that the time has come to rein in PSERS through more robust oversight and transparency measures.

So we strongly urge the legislature to finally pass Miller’s bill before the end of the 2021-22 session.

END

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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