- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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FIX PENNSYLVANIA’S KILLER DAMS

… With more than 70 fatalities, Pennsylvania has suffered the highest number of dam drownings in the United States, according to data compiled by Brigham Young University.

One-third of the documented low-head dam fatalities in the United States have occurred in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Iowa, according Bruce Tschantz, a professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who maintains the safedam.com website.

Pennsylvania has many stream miles dotted with low-head dams, most built in the 1800s to power mills. According to a July presentation by Ben Lorson, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the state’s inventory lists about 3,000 dams - but he noted that there are more that have not been logged.

Tschantz said dam danger can be deceptive because small changes in water flow can dramatically increase risk. One day, a swimmer might easily escape the downstream boil. The next day, after a rain (even far upstream), the same person could be trapped by the hydraulic jump and be unable to escape. The bubbles created by the water falling over the crest of the dam elevate the risk. The oxygen in the water reduces a person’s buoyancy, so even wearing a life vest is no guarantee of escape. …

According to Lorson, more than 230 dams have been removed in Pennsylvania since 1995. … Lorson said Pennsylvania has been a national leader in removal of obsolete dams, spending about $4.5 million on such projects since 2011.

But removal efforts have been dammed up and slowed to a trickle since the peak year of 2007, when 32 were removed in the state. Since 2008, when the recession hit, removals have dropped from 30 that year to 10 in 2011. In 2012, 11 dams were removed, and 13 were breached in 2013. …

What if there were a way to reduce the dangers of low-head dams without removing them and changing the landscape?

There is.

It’s a method largely pioneered by Luther Aadland, a river ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota, which has suffered nearly as many low-head dam drownings as Pennsylvania.

Aadland and others have come up with a method of retrofitting low-head dams to eliminate the hydraulic vortex, and it’s remarkably simple:

Rocks.

Stones.

Boulders half the size of Volkswagens that can be placed along the downstream face of the dam.

Aadland and others call the structures rock ramps or “rock arch rapids” because the result looks like natural rapids in a stream or river.

The rocks divert sideways the energy of the water falling over the dam crest, eliminating the hydraulic roller that traps and kills.

Arranging rocks downstream of the dam wall can allow fish to move upstream, creates useful fast-water habitat for fish and other creatures, creates an aesthetically pleasing “rapids” section of the creek and eliminates the undertow.

A similar remediation method involves building steps on the downstream sides of dam walls, allowing the hydraulic energy to dissipate gradually, absent a steep drop over the crest.

People will always find ways to drown, but rock ramps dramatically reduce that risk. …

- York Daily Record

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PRESUMED INNOCENT

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2014, 1:08 AM

Untold numbers of Philadelphians have lost their homes through the city district attorney’s hyper-aggressive, overreaching civil forfeiture program, which bypasses normal judicial procedures to mete out punishment before a person has been convicted of a crime.

Consider the Orwellian nightmare of Christos and Markela Sourovelis, whose 22-year-old son was charged in March with allegedly selling $40 worth of heroin outside their Somerton home. In May, police kicked the Sourovelises out of their house. After a week of couch surfing, they agreed to prosecutors’ highly inappropriate demand that they boot their son out of the house in order for the rest of the family to move back in.

There was no proof that the Sourovelises had any knowledge of their son’s alleged drug dealing, but they were punished nonetheless - forced to leave their home, and threatened with losing it, under the civil forfeiture law, which allows the government to confiscate property if prosecutors think it was “more likely than not” used in a crime.

The Sourovelises are rightly making a federal case out of this outrageous abuse. Attorneys from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, who are representing the couple, have petitioned the court to make this a class action suit to help more victims.

The lawyers want the program abolished, arguing in part that if prosecutors want to separate drug dealers from the fruits of their predatory enterprises, which is the stated purpose of the civil forfeiture program, they should follow criminal forfeiture rules, which require adjudication before punishment.

District Attorney Seth Williams’ office has used the civil forfeiture program like a piggybank to fund as much as 20 percent of its budget. In the last decade, Philadelphia has reaped $64 million in seized property - more than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined, The Inquirer’s Jeremy Roebuck reported. That money has helped pay the salaries of the prosecutors who run the civil forfeiture program, creating an obvious conflict of interest.

One deserving beneficiary of the program is the district attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which was created to shut down crack houses, brothels, and nuisance bars. That good work, which allows authorities to cite building code and other noncriminal violations to shut down troublesome enterprises, should continue.

It’s up to the Legislature to change the law that is trampling on defendants’ constitutional right to be presumed innocent before being tried. But Williams doesn’t need legislative approval to stop forfeiture abuses. Meanwhile, Mayor Nutter and City Council can help the District Attorney’s Office rely less on income from forfeitures to fight crime in Philadelphia by making sure that department is adequately funded.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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PROCEED WITH CAUTION WITH GAME LANDS FEE

If you don’t have a hunting license, should you be able to use Pennsylvania’s 308 game lands for free?

That’s the question the Pennsylvania Game Commission is studying. There are good arguments to be made on both sides. The Game Commission should seize the opportunity for a middle-ground compromise.

In his Aug. 3 story, “Non-hunters’ game lands use could come at price,” Ron Leonardi reported that the Game Commission has researched whether a fee should be charged to people who use game lands for reasons other than hunting and trapping.

The Game Commission is seeking new sources of revenue, as it should when budgets are tight. But the Game Commission should not overstep its boundaries and penalize non-hunters with excessive fees when they use game lands for recreation.

Game lands are not funded with tax dollars. Rather, the Game Commission buys properties with revenues from hunting and trapping licenses, gas and oil leases and timber sales from the game lands, according to Bill Capouillez. He is the Game Commission’s bureau director of wildlife habitat management.

Game lands are distinct from Pennsylvania’s state parks, which are free to use. Yet the Game Commission should remember that much of the land it has acquired came from donations from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “The conservancy supports that these (game) lands should be open to the public without charge,” said Allison Schlesinger, director of communications for the conservancy, based in Pittsburgh.

If the conservancy properties were conveyed with the expectation that the land would remain open to the public, why breach that initial trust? And why weren’t user fees discussed when donations began? It’s hard to restrict access now that members of the public have become accustomed to using state game lands for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling, bird-watching, dog-walking and simply to explore nature or to seek peace and quiet.

But it’s also a fact that hunters and trappers pay license fees to use state game lands. “Our intent has always been to look at the sportsmen and the hunting license fees because our sportsmen carry the bulk of the cost associated with the 1.5 million acres (in Pennsylvania), and they promote that hunting and trapping heritage,” said Capouillez.

Capouillez said if the Game Commission approves a user fee for non-hunters, the fee would be higher than a hunting or trapping license. That sounds like a formula to shut people out from the game lands. Punitive fees may help the Game Commission’s bottom line, but they would damage the Game Commission’s image as an agency that does good work to conserve natural resources and manage wildlife.

If the Game Commission charges a fee for non-hunters on game lands, the fee should be based on actual costs associated with that use. Pennsylvania’s natural heritage isn’t just about hunting and trapping. After all, the name of our commonwealth means “Penn’s Woods.”

- Erie Times-News

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A GRIM REMINDER OF GUN VIOLENCE’S TOLL

On Sunday afternoon, the front lawn of Congregation Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Nether Providence was peppered with people of all colors and ages.

Men, women and children were carefully reconstructing a unique memorial that less than two months earlier had stood on the lawn of Chester Eastside Ministries on the 400 block of East Ninth Street, just down the road apiece.

Sadly, it has only grown in significance.

The memorial consists of more than 140 T-shirts, each representing a local resident who has been shot to death in the last five years. The shirts - each inscribed with a victim’s name, age and date of death - are stretched over forms of rebar and polyvinyl chloride pipe and planted in the ground to resemble tombstones in a graveyard.

Since June 22 when the memorial was first erected in Chester, nine more people have been shot to death in Delaware County.

“It brings home the human cost of gun violence in our midst,” said Fran Stier, a member of Ohev Shalom for about 30 years.

She is among the members of the Chester/Delaware County Chapter of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement with six chapters in the Greater Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., areas. Their mission is to raise awareness of the carnage caused by gun violence with such displays as their “T-shirt Memorial to the Lost.” They also are bringing pressure to bear on gun dealers to deter straw purchases of firearms by adhering to stricter sales policies.

They maintain that the highly developed illegal trade of gun trafficking is made possible through “criminal entrepreneurs, traffickers, the straw buyers who stand in for them to make their bulk purchases and gun dealers who look the other way and enjoy the profits.” …

But it isn’t just the growing number of school shootings and other mass murders committed by gunmen that have propelled the anti-gun violence efforts of groups such as Heeding God’s Call. It is the growing number of shootings on local streets and in homes due to domestic violence, turf wars and the illegal drug trade, among other things.

Between Jan. 10 and Aug. 11, there have been 35 homicides in Delaware County, 25 due to gun violence. Twenty of those homicides have been in Chester, 19 due to gun violence. Since July 24 alone there have been eight shooting deaths in Delaware County.

“In numbers, they’re devastating to the community,” noted Stier.

The sea of T-shirts now in front of the synagogue will give motorists and pedestrians along routes 320 and 252 some idea of the toll of gun violence in Delaware County just since 2009. The grim fact of the matter is, at least 18 more T-shirts will have to be added to bring it up-to-date.

- Delaware County Daily Times

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ARMED TO THE HILT: MILITARY HARDWARE SHOULD GET ONLY RARE POLICE USE

Armed to the hilt: Military hardware should get only rare police use

The ongoing battle of Ferguson, Missouri, between rioters and looters and the forces of order, including local and state police and the National Guard, has raised the question of militarization of local police forces.

In the past, local officers patrolled in police cruisers purchased with local taxes. Now, when there are disturbances in some towns or cities, heavy-duty hardware hits the streets, with police in helmets and body armor looking like spacemen, riding in Humvees and carrying automatic weapons.

How did America get from the more user-friendly police forces of yesteryear to the military-style, 21st-century version that appears designed to scare and intimidate rather than be seen as an instrument of protection and security?

It is important to say, first, that no one except criminals and terrorists wants police to be outgunned in the course of serving the public. That is one justification for the heavy armaments with which some local officers have been equipped, particularly since the 9/?11 attacks.

At the same time, it is important to note that one reason police need to be so heavily armed is that legislators and other leaders have not had the courage to pass sensible gun control laws, meaning too many lethal weapons find their way into the wrong hands, causing problems not only for the public but also for the police who must keep order.

Another appalling aspect is that gun manufacturers and dealers profit from this. They supply the weapons that are on the loose in society as well as those in the hands of police. The federal government also makes military hardware available to local communities and offers grants for purchase of military-grade arms.

This is not to say that local or state police should not have access to powerful weapons in those rare cases of major civil disturbance. But they should not become the norm and they should not cause a municipal police force to look routinely like a commando unit. The American people deserve better, as taxpayers and as potential victims of excess firepower.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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TIME TO START SAYING ‘NO’

There is some dispiriting symmetry in a condition that the state Department of Environmental Protection has placed on the proposed massive expansion of the massive Keystone Landfill. Before it will consider the permit application, the DEP wants an engineering study to ensure that the millions of tons of additional garbage to be dumped will not collapse mine voids under the dump.

Such is the environmental legacy of northeast Pennsylvania. A new exploitation of the environment threatens to worsen an old one. Schuylkill County is no stranger to this.

Whether such a collapse would bring a few million tons of decomposing garbage into contact with underground water is, of course, a valid DEP concern. But for northeast Pennsylvania, the concerns go well beyond even that.

The dump in Lackawanna County has enough capacity remaining to receive “only” 21 million more tons of garbage and some other waste. That would take about 9½ years. Under Keystone’s expansion proposal, it would add 143 million cubic yards of dump space by building upward over another 47 years, during which it would receive another 106 million tons of garbage - creating a Montage Mountain-size garbage mountain.

For NEPA, the impact goes well beyond the host communities. Multiple sewer authorities are under federal orders to vastly improve treatment; orange-tinted acidic mine drainage continues to colorfully contaminate waterways; much of the region continues to suffer the environmental consequences of large-scale mining and the economic consequences of its collapse.

At some point the region must decide that massive-scale pollution no longer can be an economic driver.

- (Pottsville) Republican-Herald.

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GET AHEAD OF POWER LINE

Most public officials and even environmental activists in northeast Pennsylvania did nothing several years ago as PPL Corp. planned and constructed its power line monstrosity across the region’s ridge-tops to sell power in New Jersey.

PPL wants to build another behemoth across most of the state, for the same purpose.

The $4-billion-to-$6-billion plan is to gather power generated by power plants fueled by natural gas as coal-fired plants retire, and transmit it eastward.

So far, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club has announced its opposition, on ground that it would be cheaper and less environmentally disruptive to meet power demand through conservation and other increased efficiency, and through renewable sources such as wind and solar, far nearer the markets where the power will be consumed.

But most of the actual environmental impact would be in Pennsylvania.

Local governments across the potential path of the line, and environmental groups concerned about the broader picture, should prepare now to challenge the proposal.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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