Monday, May 30, 2011

Memory Flood on Memorial Day

While the majority of us are called upon on Memorial Day to reflect on those in our armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation and our freedom, events in the distant past are drawing me to reflect on loss in a different context as remembrance becomes the focus of this day.

Little Pine Creek Flood - May 30, 1986

Twenty-five years ago today, a frenetic Friday afternoon rush hour in the North Hills of Pittsburgh was complicated by the arrival of several thunderstorms. One of these slow-moving storms dumped an estimated 8 inches of rain over a one hour period in the area of Little Pine Creek, a normally small stream that winds along Saxonburg Boulevard through Indiana Township until it reaches Pa. Route 8 in Shaler Township, and turns south toward Etna.

This deluge resulted in one of the worst flash floods in local history. Eight people lost their lives when Little Pine Creek tore through the area, destroying homes, stacking cars at the Mae West Bend on Rt. 8 like a child's Hot Wheels collection, and putting 6 feet of water through the bulk of Etna proper. Medical helicopters helped to rescue and evacuate the injured, and the remaining emergency resources of the area became quickly overwhelmed.

This was the first major incident that I was directly involved in as a dispatcher in public safety. The agency I volunteered with was selected by Allegheny County's EMS Coordinator to assist in the coordination of multiple EMS agencies from across the county and region in responding to and providing EMS coverage for the area for the weekend that followed.

I was at the radio for the bulk of the next two days. When I got to actually see the devastation on Sunday afternoon, the memories I hold onto are varied and really kind of weird - the dried mud covering the intersection of Route 8 and Saxonburg; the parishoners of St. Mary's Church on Middle Road who spent the weekend serving spaghetti to responders and others affected; the command post at the Middle Road VFD, and the vehicle parked there with (gasp) a cellular phone mounted inside.

Several of the responders involved received recognition from the County for their efforts, myself included. The attaboy was nice, the experience valuable, the career capital worthwhile. In retrospect, I think more now about those who lost loved ones that fateful day, and the cumulative effect upon those responders and support personnel who have weathered this and many more smaller tragedies over their careers. It makes my contributions that weekend, however important in the larger scale of this particular event, seem small in the collective microscope of history.

Hope your Memorial Day was a pleasant one. Enjoy the week ahead.

Friday, May 27, 2011

File Under 'Cart Before the Horse'

The Post-Gazette reported Wednesday that State Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne Co.) got a bill through her Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committee (an interesting combination there) that would require energy companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale to:
  • Draft and file Emergency Operations Plans with local emergency response authorities
  • Post this and other emergency information at drilling sites, so as to be easily referenced by personnel when needed
  • Ascertain the Latitude/Longitude (GPS) coordinates of all drilling sites, and assure that wellsite personnel, responders, and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are aware of them.
This is an excellent idea, although I'm wondering out loud how such a set of requirements did not exist previously via existing rulemaking or legislation. It's not as if drilling, mining, or other heavy industrial activities in rural areas haven't occurred here before. Something that Sen. Baker's office put in their press release may explain this a little better than I can:
"It is extremely important for the gas industry to coordinate emergency response plans with first responders and state and local officials," Baker said. "This issue is too important to leave up to voluntary compliance."
Is 'voluntary compliance' with rules and requirements that may change by municipality, the norm or the exception? Let's hope it's the latter, and that the full Senate, House, and Gov. Corbett will show the same enthusiasm for this bill. Something like this should have been in place before a single drill bit breached Pennsylvania soil in search of gas from the Marcellus Shale. It seems long overdue.

In a related matter, the Post-Gazette also committed much ink in this past Sunday's edition to the plight of rural Pennsylvanians without adequate mobile telephone service and broadband Internet connections.

The P-G's story focused on Sullivan County, where many components of public service delivery systems risk being overwhelmed with activity related to drilling, and things that 9-1-1 operators in many areas take for granted, such as GPS coordinates for calls received from mobile phones, are non-existent in the majority of circumstances.

The influx of personnel and capital from energy companies will likely help foment a more rapid deployment of these capabilities; the private sector seems more flexible and responsive to issues and opportunities than the public sector when it comes to these kinds of issues. That is the essence of capitalizing on what the Marcellus has to offer. However, without adequate safeguards and planning contingencies that Sen. Baker's legislation would likely help provide, what is the potential cost to the region's quality of life?

I should probably state here and now that I am not opposed to drilling - that is an unrealistic stance in a country, and a region, largely built on this type of activity. I am opposed to allowing it to proceed without a strong, responsive, efficient, and empowered system of checks, balances, and meaningful enforcement. These efforts too often seem to always be playing catch-up and politics with what is really going on in the field.

Speaking of what's going on in the field, Sewickley Patch reported yesterday that the drivers of at least two large trucks were cited recently for being overweight on municipal roadways. This may be just the beginning of a trend when there's frack water to be hauled to wellsites...

Let's hope that Senator Baker's bill is the first step in a better direction, and that those improvements in access to technology in rural areas that may be a consequence of energy development do not come at the price of the communities themselves.

Also, please remember those that have paid the ultimate price for our freedom while you're enjoying this Memorial Day weekend. I'll be working, but remembering as well, and not just about that.

Until next time...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Graduation 2011

Gianna Micah Withrow, Quaker Valley High School Class of 2011
with her mother Leslie, QVHS Class of 1981

Congratulations, Gianna. You've had a rougher road than most of your peers, and have come through with distinction to reach yet another starting point. I know you're ready.

Too many commencement speakers have trod the same turf about opportunity and preparedness. I get the feeling that you know what you want, and have the tools and skills to seek it out and claim it as your own. You're very much like your mother in that respect.

Best wishes for continued success at Robert Morris, and in your life ahead.
Your mother and I are looking forward to watching you go after that which calls you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Return To/From the
'Sacrifice Zone'

I recently moved back to the Sewickley area after a long stint in western Colorado. The 'Western Slope', as that region is known, is rich in many potential sources of energy. The local paper there dubbed the region "Energy Alley" in a series of articles last year.

Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Uranium, and Oil Shale (not to mention lots of sunshine) exist in varying degrees of abundance across many areas of this region. Aiding those who would seek to profit from their extraction is the split estate concept - where surface landowners do not own the mineral rights underneath. One group of documentary filmmakers went so far as to dub the region a "National Sacrifice Zone", which usually refers to an area where the cost of cleanup, whether physical or economic, exceeds the perceived value of the area requiring such a restoration.

This moniker has been used to describe facilities and areas associated with the nuclear industry, particularly those involved in nuclear weapons development and testing, but also in the processing of uranium and the generation of civilian nuclear power. The test sites in Nevada, along with the area around a weapons plant in Hanford, WA are mentioned, but there are a great many towns and cities that have been touched by the nuclear industry; Grand Junction, CO and Canonsburg, PA have one thing in common (besides great candy stores); they've both had major cleanups of uranium mill tailings from within their boundaries.

Western Colorado is also where gas and oil drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" has been going on for several years, and where, as in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Marcellus Shale region, community activism is on the rise in response to several accidents involving the use, transport, and disposal of fracking fluids.

Many of my posts over the last couple of years have dealt with energy, in particular the extraction of natural gas from areas in both states using the controversial fracking process. This has been of particular interest of late to Pennsylvanians, given the ramping up of drilling activity, revelations of additional potential threats to potable water supplies as a consequence of fracking, and significant changes in the state's regulatory posture by the new Republican governor, Tom Corbett.

Lots of questions are being asked, and new activity is always occurring while the debate rages on. Municipal governments seem hard-pressed to learn or remain current while landmen sniff around, and energy companies buy up or lease large swaths of acreage. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other partners seem to be doing a great job of cataloging some of what's been happening in the area through their PIPELINE website, which is provided in the sidebar here as a feed.

People seem to be reacting along fairly predictable lines with regard to what appears an inevitable march into the area by energy companies, drilling contractors, and the additional economic and environmental impacts that accompany them. Having seen the sacrifices made both here and elsewhere, I have the following observations...

As a public safety professional in Colorado, I participated in the design, procurement, and implementation of several projects designed to improve emergency response capabilities in the areas I served. Nearly all of these projects were either partially or completely funded by grant programs that received their funding from state-imposed severance taxes and impact fees. Only those counties that were impacted by energy development were eligible for the grant funding.

Gov. Corbett's steadfast refusal to consider a severance tax on the gas taken from Pennsylvania wells defies logic, especially in lean economic times. As a "newcomer", my reaction may be too simplistic, but why would the Governor prefer to balance the budget on the backs of school districts, and thereby schoolchildren? Probably has something to do with the Governor's opinion of teacher's unions, but that's for another post, along with the simultaneous push for educational vouchers.

State Rep. Jesse White (D-Cecil), writing in March on, outlined the problem rather well:
"In some places, nearly one-third of the municipal budget is going to these issues, there is no way under the law for these taxpayer monies to be recouped, and the gas industry has yet to step in and take a proactive role...As a result, local taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab, which is almost offensive considering the amount of money being made by the natural gas industry in our backyards. The message from local municipalities was clear: While local governments are not trying to kill the goose laying the golden egg that is Marcellus Shale, the taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for the nest."
Rep. White, along with several others in the legislature, have been lobbying for legislation to allow municipalities to levy impact fees, to help assure that the energy developers help to pay for the increased needs for infrastructure and government services brought about by their activities. Putting this in the hands of individual boroughs and townships seems to me a slippery slope, considering the sheer number of municipalities and the potential lack of consistency between them. Bell Acres got ahead of the curve this week with the adoption of an ordinance; what's next for their neighbors, and the rest of the area?

Should Gov. Corbett's reticence toward severance taxes prove insurmountable, perhaps all of those multiple little governments can learn something from some Pennsylvania landowners, and approach the issue cooperatively. That's something that industry, taxpayers, and citizens might all be able to agree on.

Most states where gas drilling has been going on for years have a solid means of generating revenue and enforcing regulations to protect workers and residents alike, even though it's comparatively more expensive to move gas from areas such as the west to where it is needed the most, like here in the east. That's what's driving the Marcellus boom - proximity to market.

The energy industry put a lot of money into Gov. Corbett's campaign. It's obvious that they want a sweetheart arrangement in the Marcellus Shale.
Responsible citizens need to continue to stand up and tell the Governor that this is not acceptable. Vince Townley's editorial in the May 5 Sewickley Herald echoed similar sentiments.

I would also not place a great deal of credence in any noise made by the energy industry about shutting down or scaling back operations in response to efforts to levy taxes and/or fees in Pennsylvania. In other places it's chalked up to the cost of doing business; in as prime an area as the Marcellus Shale, where the supply is literally in the backyard of the demand, the same operating principle will likely apply.

Many of us, myself included, owe our existence and our well-being to many of our ancestors who toiled in mills, mines, factories, refineries, and other trappings of the Pittsburgh region's turbulent industrial past and subsequent reclamation. The working conditions, health effects, economic instabilities, and other byproducts of that history continue to manifest themselves in the present day, whether in heightened levels of infirmity among this area's significant older population, or clusters of cancer or other illnesses in populations that have settled in and around reclaimed industrial sites.

This region, this state, faces too many difficulties stemming from its fragile infrastructure - systems for moving vehicle traffic, delivering potable water, and safely treating and disposing of wastewater are aging, and are being retrofitted and improved constantly. The Marcellus Shale boom will impact all of these systems, from the water trucks that will traverse country roads to provide well sites with fracking fluid, to the treatment plants (and perhaps soon, disposal ponds) that the used fluid will travel to and through, to the downstream intakes where many towns draw their water supplies.

Many of my ancestors sacrificed themselves to the industries that sustained them - Quod me nutrit, me destruit - so that future generations might not have to. I've known two children from this area who have succumbed to cancer. Regardless of whether or not there is any connection to those lives lost and the environmental challenges facing the region where they were born and lived, for me that's two deaths too many.

These individual cases may constitute a quieter 'sacrifice' that does not match the physical devastation of an entire geographic area. Here and elsewhere, the devastation has been economic, and the restoration slow. Marcellus Shale gas development offers the possibility of revitalization of many areas, but without adequate government oversight, appropriate revenue generation and distribution, and a commitment to protecting the land and water, those who benefit will be few instead of many.

How much more will this region be asked to sacrifice now, without being able to reap some collective benefit, and without solid assurances that the process will be conducted in such a way that will protect future lives and land from potentially becoming part of another National Sacrifice Zone?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Hey, My Kid Goes to CMU

Depending upon your life experience and/or geographical location, the title of this post can mean a lot of different things to different people. For me, last week's news of the Mesa State College Board of Trustees voting to change the name of the institution to Colorado Mesa University brought to me a decidedly mixed reaction, mainly because I focused on the new initials and associated them with the Pittsburgh institution that most readily came to mind. The resulting disconnect was kind of obvious.

Carnegie-Mellon University here in Pittsburgh already owns the "" Internet domain, and the recognition that comes with it. There is also Central Michigan University, but no others that pop up readily on a Google search.

Aside from the esoteric, yet overly-stressed-about-in-some-corners approach to this change, I seriously doubt that anyone will confuse the two institutions. One is a prestigious private university with many high-profile alumni. The other is part of the public higher education system in Colorado, with a reputation for a decent learning environment, recent significant growth in both size and coursework offered, and an administration with solid political connections.

My son goes to the "new" CMU in Colorado. He enjoys it there, and feels he is getting a very good education and access to other opportunities. As a parent, I can't help but be happy with that, no matter what they decide to plaster on the signs, business cards, and letterhead.

If one were going to compare Mesa State/Colorado Mesa to a college in the Pittsburgh area, a more appropriate choice would be Robert Morris University, across the Ohio River from us in Moon Township. RMU had it's own naming crisis, a dispute with similarly named institution in Chicago that seemed to be resolved in its favor.

As it happens, Leslie's daughter Gianna has been accepted to the Pennsylvania RMU, and plans to start in the fall.

As a child, I remember the suburban campus as Robert Morris Junior College, just as many in Grand Junction remember Mesa College as a 2-year institution. Both schools have experienced prodigious growth over recent years - while Robert Morris is a private school with a over 200 acres of land to grow on, Mesa State has used its status as an arm of the State of Colorado to grow where it can, as it is exempt from local zoning and development regulations, including fire codes as has been discussed here previously.

To be fair, Mesa State has been a willing partner with the City of Grand Junction in identifying areas for redevelopment. The City's recent efforts to gather public comment for a long-term blueprint of the North Avenue corridor echo this, but the one meeting I attended felt like the college was an 800-pound gorilla looming invisibly over the proceedings.

The Mesa State trustees' recent vote to expand west to Seventh Street emphasizes both the importance of a planning effort, and the City's otherwise anemic efforts at developing a plan without a binding agreement with the college as to how and where they will grow. Otherwise, this has the potential to be another example of development outstripping the City's ability to respond to it, especially when the culprit is an arm of the government, exempt from both local zoning and taxation.

Here's to a bright future for Colorado Mesa University, Robert Morris University, and my two favorite students. May they not grow too fast, too soon.

Have a great week ahead.