Community shows a way to reduce water use

Hillside development features rooftop solar panels and natural wastewater treatment

(This column was first published on Rock The Capital, Oct. 21, 2011.)

It is said that that much of the county in which I live is only 30-45 days away from drought. The land beneath the houses and pavement is nearly solid – compacted dried clay virtually incapable of storing water.

We turn on our tap and water issues forth, which we use to drink, wash ourselves and our dishes, and flush away our waste. Most of us remain unconcerned about how long that sequence will continue.

In 1998, one group of South Central Pennsylvania residents had a different idea. They created a community designed from the start to minimize demands on natural resources, including water. It seems to be working.

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The hidden cost of food

Fields of crops becoming ready for pickingMen and women are picking tomatoes to earn 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket, $50  to hand pick more than two tons of tomatoes in a 12-hour day.

Of course,  cheaper isn’t always better. The idea leaves thousands of farm hands needing taxpayer support for food stamps and medical care because their wages will not cover the expense.

For one more penny a pound, the person who picked it can see a doubling of her wage, but it’s hard convincing grocery chains and restaurants it’s the right thing to do.

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Pennsylvania’s parallel governments: a journey to The Outer Limits

Two Pennsylvania capitals side by sideFor decades, science fiction has been telling of parallel universes. I was introduced to the idea in my youth by “The Twilight Zone,” a weekly television show that ran 1959 – 1964 and featured people in strange situations – often in places they thought they recognized, but were not where they thought they were – their home town, but with no people, for instance.

Or “imagine, if you will,” as show host Rod Serling would say, finding yourself on the street where you lived. You walk up to your home and are met by – yourself. It’s you, your wife, your child, your dog – and none of them know who you are.

Sometimes the evening news resembles reruns of those old shows. We recognize the representatives we voters sent to Harrisburg to oversee the state’s operations, but they seem not to recognize us. It’s as though we live under parallel governments.

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The Sky is Pink

White puffy clouds float through a pink sky“With the gas-bearing Marcellus Shale formation underlying 50 percent of the state (of New York), and with the gas industry proposing upwards of 100,000 gas wells (in the state), (Gov. Mario Cuomo’s decision to repeal a moratorium on fracking) could fundamentally transform New York.”

With that, producer/director Josh Fox opens an 18-minute video foray into the dangers of fracking for natural gas. Fox was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for “Gasland,” a documentary about the hazards of fracking, and is working on a full-length sequel, “Gasland 2.”

In his new short video, Fox says all the chemicals and gas often do not remain confined to the well casing and pipelines, and the industry knows the dangers they deny exist.

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Pa. lawmakers find billions for Marcellus Shale Welfare Fund

Mountaintop cleared for a well pad and pipeline connecting to wells across Gray RunIt’s looking as though Pennsylvania lawmakers may repeat last year’s performance and get the 2013 budget approved in time for them to go home for the July 4 holiday. The hot dog industry is depending on them.

To get it done, House and Senate Republicans (Democrats – at least those who would object – have pretty much been left out of the discussions) seem to have struck a deal with Gov. Corbett. If he gives back the cuts he proposed to higher education, they will give him another $1.65 billion for his favorite charity.

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Lack of GED, diploma or degree not necessarily indicator of school’s failure

Loading mulch into a semi-trailer with a front loader requires hand-eye coordination and attention, not collegeWhen I was young, Eighth Grade graduation marked the limit of many students’ academic career. I was raised in rural Maine, where young people helped their families on the farm, and the school calendar was written around planting and harvest schedules, and the fall agricultural fair.

The engineer who designs wind turbines can benefit from advanced education in physics. The primary requirements to operate a crane or read a torque wrench are ability to read and follow directions, and good hand-eye coordination.

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Presenting the Class of 2016

Four-year-old Kass learns to ride a bike-without-training-wheels

Granddaughter Kass graduated this month from Eighth Grade. It was a warmup for what will happen in four years; she and her classmates were introduced at the end of the ceremonies as the Class of 2016.

It was a warmup for the show slated four years hence – a warning round over Mom’s pocketbook.

“She’s gonna go get her beauty on,” said Mom, as mother and daughter prepared to head out.

“I am,” she said. “I’m getting curls, and then I need to get my eyebrows done.”

And she just turned 14.

Continue reading Presenting the Class of 2016

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Sign identifies Range Resources drill site and DCNR permit for five million gallons a day water useLower-than-hyped revenue, plunging natural gas prices, and growing environmental concerns could spell trouble for the Marcellus Shale industry.

It’s attempt to recover corporate value could be problematic for Pennsylvanians at both ends of the state, as natural gas producers leave the northeast for the, hopefully, more profitable western hills.

While those away from the drilling fields see little effect from the industry’s efforts, those within it notice promised riches, flammable water, and eviction notices.

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“Poverty-stricken” Shell Oil offered $2B taxpayer handout to set up in Pa.

Shell oil stands to gain two billion in tax incentives to build a 400-job plant near Pittsburgh

Shell Oil Co., a child of Royal Dutch Shell – the latter reportedly the largest oil company in Europe and second largest company in the world – is thinking about building an ethane cracker plant in Monaca Borough, Beaver County, 30-some miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The proposed plant would be used to “crack” ethane from natural gas derived from wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale in the southwestern region of the state. The cracking process results in ethylene, used mostly in making plastics.

The plant will benefit from Act 16 of 2012,  a bill the Pa. General Assembly adopted to exempt the giant firm from paying state income and property taxes for 15 years. Continue reading “Poverty-stricken” Shell Oil offered $2B taxpayer handout to set up in Pa.

Limiting soft drinks to 16-ounces is a gimmick, not a solution

A cup of unsweetened ice is a drink of choice for someNew York Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week proposed soft drink sales be limited to 16-ounce containers. Indeed!

I don’t even like soda much, and I’ll accept that being overweight is less healthy than being at an ideal weight – whatever that is. But there are better ways of fighting obesity than insulting us overweight folks and limiting the size drink we can buy.

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Some Marcellus-related companies may be boosting profits by importing illegal workers

A quarter mile from a Marcellus Shale job site, WV union workers protest imported laborers

A newspaper story Thursday reported a federal indictment against a Texas-based company accused of bringing illegal workers to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale fracking fields.

Coincidentally, workers in West Virginia are staffing road-side positions, protesting the practice of some Marcellus-related companies bringing out-of-state workers to take jobs for which local workers are available.

“We have a lot of people trained to do the work,” Stephen “Vern” Montoney, of Randolph County, W.Va told me last week.

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Thank you to the defenders of the U.S. Constitution

Millions of headstones mark those who have deied to protect the U.S. Constitution

The Constitution used to require only a simple majority for the U.S. Senate to pass a bill – 51 votes when the senate is fully complemented with 100 senators.

To the everlasting joy of a handful of senators, We The People seemed to have become convinced the Constitution has been amended to require 60 votes.

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Lucky find in a town beside the interstate

A youngster gazes through his reflection at cupcakes and other pastries behind the glass case
I didn’t know there was a Boonsboro, Md., until Granddaughter had a soccer game there. (I think her team came very close to winning.) All that running around made several of us hungry, so we headed into town to see what was available, preferably not something with a name we’d recognize.

We like to experiment with local places, and we found one, right there on North Main Street – the Icing Bakery and Café. I had a bowl of chicken rice soup, a couple of us had hot sandwiches, and the little guy in the picture had some of his dad’s. Lunch topped off with cheesecake cupcakes.

Follow the link to Icing Bakery

Consumers demand may be restoring an endangered species

Customers crowd around to inspect a display of fresh produce at a farm market
The 2011 Census of Agriculture by Statistics Canada reveals the past five years have seen a 10 percent reduction in the number of farms in our northern neighbor’s inventory.
But the average farm size has increased by about seven percent. In one province, the number of farms is down 17 percent, while the average farm size is up 15 percent.
A similar phenomenon has been taking place in U.S. agricultural areas. What’s up with that?

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While we continue to subsidize fossil fuels, at least one American industrial giant invests in green technology in, of all places …

Masdar, a city in the middle of a desert with zero carbon emissions
While some of our politicians and fossil fuel barons try, with varying success, to convince us we’re not digging up enough coal, oil or natural gas, the folks who we are told are selling us our oil are busy building a city that doesn’t need it.

For the first time in more than a half-century, the U.S. exports more fuel than it imports. We still are the world’s largest importer of crude oil, but a huge portion of the imported crude becomes exported product, including fuels. Continue reading While we continue to subsidize fossil fuels, at least one American industrial giant invests in green technology in, of all places …

Sometimes it takes us all

A row of 300-foot tall wind turbines visible from the Pennsylvania turnpikeWind power, a Pennsylvania state politician recently said, is accomplishing one thing: spending taxpayer money.

But there is growing evidence it is doing other, more positive things, such as creating jobs and supplying the electrical grid – with considerably less risk than the Keystone State’s other burgeoning energy source.

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Late may not be better than never

50-foot wide pipeline path cuts through Loyalsock forestLast month, the EPA announced new regulations that will require natural gas drillers to capture the methane they ordinarily allow to escape before they cap their well. The new rules take effect in 2015.

Last week, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, announced proposed regulations that would require drillers to tell us what chemicals they are pumping into the ground – and sometimes spilling onto the ground and into our waters – to release natural gas by fracturing shale thousands of feet underground.

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Computers are good at step-by-step, but only a human can be, well, human

r-pod camper and Jeep Grand Cherokee tow vehicle in campgroundWe had picked up the Messeder Space Pod in Myrtle Beach on a Thursday afternoon and headed home. Somewhere a little south of Petersburg, Va., we decided to start looking for a place to pull in for the night.

So we asked Sally G, our faithful GPS, to find one. She found several. We picked the closest one and dialed the phone number. A fellow whose gravelly voice came from National Geographic’s “Swamp Men,” only friendlier, listened patiently while I described where I was – some exit off I-95, northbound toward home.

“It’s not that I don’t want your business,” the proprietor said, “but I’m over on (Interstate) 85, and that’s pretty much out of your way.”

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Replacing humans with machines not necessarily a cost savings

NASA photo of Alan Shepard's launch of first US astronaut into spaceThe Messeder Space Pod (for want, at present, of a better name) finally is ready to go. My co-pilot in life and other travels went visiting her sister a couple months ago, and came home in love with an r-Pod, a small (18-foot) camper trailer not much bigger than the original space capsule that carried Astronaut Alan Shepard from Cape Canaveral to a wet spot in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Speaking of bullies – a case in point

A field of plowed furrows awaits planting the new year's cropVermont residents would like to know what the heck is in their food. So they went to their legislature to ask for a law, and it looked for a time that their request would be honored. Unfortunately, Monsanto – the poster child for Genetically Modified groceries – informed the state that should it have the effrontery to pass such a law, the agricultural mega-corp would sue.

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