- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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NATURAL GAS: YOU KNOW THE DRILL

Imagine a vein of gold being discovered under the building of the Philadelphia School District. Even given the crushing budget shortfall of the schools, it’s unlikely that the money from mining that gold would go directly to fill the district’s coffers. More likely, it would be directed to the general public coffers, since the public coffers are what keep the district running. The gold, in effect, belongs to all of us.

That’s why the windfall that Pittsburgh Airport is about to receive from gas drilling is so puzzling. Any day now, wells on the 9,000 acres surrounding the airport will begin drilling the stores of shale under the airport. The deal is expected to bring more than $20 million a year to prop up the struggling airport.

When the drilling deal was first discussed, proper questions were raised about where the money would go; the airport is owned by Allegheny County. A decline in flights and the consolidation of airlines has the airport, which derives its income from retail and airline leases, faltering financially. Enter the frackers, and then the Federal Aviation Administration, which claimed that income derived from the airport must stay at the airport. That ought to rankle the residents of the county, if not of the state.

This is just the latest in a series of dubious decisions and directions related to hydraulic fracturing in the state. Earlier in the year, Gov. Corbett moved to lift a moratorium on drilling on state lands, including game and park land.

One environmental group has sued to stop the drilling. Such drilling not only has the potential to alter the landscape, but nearly a million acres of state land is already subject to drilling and some claim it’s already having a negative impact on wildlife populations.

The race to drill the state - Corbett says he also wants to drill under state prisons - is especially troubling given how little time is spent studying fracking’s potential impact, and how little drillers pay the state for the privilege.

Just last week, a group of health professionals raised questions about the Corbett administration’s handling of the health questions raised by fracking. They accuse the administration of directing state Health Department officials not to pay proper attention to calls from those with health problems or concerns.

Fracking shoots chemicals and water at extreme pressure into the ground, to fracture, or “frack,” the shale and release the natural gas. Drillers pay only fees, not taxes, unlike all the other states in which fracking occurs. Public-health experts bemoan the lack of long-term health studies on the effects of fracking. And, most outrageously, a health registry that would record and analyze complaints that was part of recommendations of a governor’s commission was abandoned because the $2 million it would cost was deemed too expensive.

When the state legalized gambling, it created a set of policies and regulations that involved high taxes for the gaming companies, with shares going to host cities and the bulk divided among a range of programs and tax deductions that benefited those throughout the state. Even more important, the Gaming Control Board was established to strictly monitor gambling as well as its impact.

Too bad the same approach wasn’t adopted when the state went crazy for fracking - especially since there’s potentially even more at stake. Corbett’s fervor for drilling without proper controls is an increasingly bad gamble.

-Philadelphia Daily News

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FOUR REASONS TO OPPOSE PPL POWER LINE HERE:

Another year, another proposal that could result in ugly energy infrastructure running through York County’s lush fields and forests.

In recent years, companies have proposed pipelines that would transport petroleum products through or near our community. Now PPL is planning a major electricity line that will carry power through south-central Pennsylvania to Maryland.

The company says the project will improve the regional power grid and reduce the cost of electricity.

That may well be (though we’re not counting on those lower rates). The power line might be necessary. It might be an economic boon to the state or the country.

But we’re going to put on our NIMBY hats now, before the actual route of the line is determined, and argue that it should not run through York County.

Why not?

1. York County already produces more than its fair share of energy.

We’re a net exporter of electricity. Think about it, we have two nuclear power plants in our vicinity - Peach Bottom and Three Mile Island. We have a polluting coal-fired power plant at Brunner Island. We have an incinerator that burns trash and creates electricity. We have several hydroelectric dams along the river. We have a gas-fired power plant in southeastern York County.

2. The electricity isn’t destined for us but for urban and out-of-state areas.

As Sierra Club officials have argued, this model of producing electricity in rural areas such as central Pennsylvania and shipping it to urban areas is not good for the environment. Let those areas build their own power infrastructure (preferably from greener and more renewable sources) closer to home.

3. Little economic benefit here.

The electricity would be created in the fracking fields of northern and western Pennsylvania — and that’s where most of the economic benefits will land. They get the revenue, we get the ugly power lines. No, let some other county get the infrastructure for a change.

4. Pollution.

Prevailing west-to-east winds carrying pollution from those Marcellus shale-fired power plants could pass right through York County. Our air quality is already bad, according to the American Lung Association. Granted, we’d get pollution from power plants in fracking areas whether the lines come through here or not, but as our world faces increasingly dire threats from global warming, we must be cautious about more fossil fuel-based electricity.

In the end, we’re not against economic development, and we understand the importance of electricity to our modern world.

But enough is enough.

Run those lines somewhere else.

- York Daily Record

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APPEAL THIS RULING: MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES SERVE A PURPOSE

In the wake of a state Superior Court ruling last week, it would appear that the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is, at the very least, headed to the state Supreme Court.

Last Wednesday, the nine-judge panel ruled that a mandatory minimum sentence given to a Montgomery County drug dealer was unconstitutional.

The case in question involves James Newman, convicted in Montgomery County in 2012 of selling drugs from his apartment. When police searched the apartment, they discovered a handgun and ammunition.

When Newman was sentenced, prosecutors, citing Criminal Code Section 9712.1, sought and received from the presiding judge a mandatory five-year sentence because the gun was found in the vicinity of the drugs.

However, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. In the case of Alleyne v. U.S., a judge handed down a mandatory sentence to a defendant for having “brandished” a gun. However, the jury did not find that he “brandished” the gun; only that he had it on him during a robbery.

Although the nine-judge Superior Court panel all agreed that the mandatory sentence in the Newman case was wrong because it wasn’t decided by a jury, a concurring opinion written by Judge Sally Mundy of behalf of herself, President Judge Susan P. Gantman and Judge Judith F. Olson disputes that the Alleyne case applies to all mandatory minimum sentences.

Wrote Mundy: “Neither the federal nor the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from enacting mandatory minimum sentences. … Alleyne merely requires that the element for said offense be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.”

To void all of Section 9712.1, she argued, would be to deprive legislators of their objective of having those who possess a gun while trafficking in drugs serve a longer sentence.

Given the stakes, we can understand the concern of Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman. The ruling essentially does away with current mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

It is clear that the state Legislature intended to place stiffer penalties on drug traffickers who have guns. Such penalties are common throughout the United States.

Montgomery County prosecutors have not yet decided whether to take this case before the state Supreme Court.

They should. Some, including Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, see this as a matter of public safety.

Coupled with the fact that three Superior Court judges believe the majority overstepped is reason enough to request a review before the state’s highest court.

- (Lancaster) Intelligencer Journal.

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PATIENTS BECOME ADDICTS

The gateway to heroin isn’t necessarily on some darkened street corner or alley - for many, it’s in their doctors’ offices.

These people turn to the illicit drug after becoming hooked on prescription opioids like Oxycodone, according to those on the front lines of America’s heroin epidemic.

When it becomes harder or more expensive to get pharmaceuticals, abusers switch to the cheaper, more readily available street drug for their fixes.

Experts say that partly explains the explosion in heroin use and overdose deaths around the country.

According to The Partnership at Drugfree.org, the number of Americans who reported past-year use climbed from 373,000 in 2007 to 620,000 in 2011.

Pennsylvania now ranks third for heroin abuse.

Roughly corresponding to this trend is a sharp spike in the number of heroin-related deaths - 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reports.

Here in York County, the coroner has recorded 28 confirmed and four suspected heroin or opioid deaths so far this year, a shocking increase over the 17 for all of 2013.

Unfortunately, that number almost surely will rise in the final four months of 2014.

The local community has responded with a heroin task force made up of representatives from law enforcement, the courts and the coroner’s office, while private citizens have organized anti-heroin rallies and information sessions.

Educating friends and family about spotting heroin users and getting them help, as well as cracking down on dealers and suppliers, are helpful tools.

But tackling addiction before it begins is an absolutely crucial part of combating the problem.

The federal government last week announced it will finally add new restrictions on hundreds of medicines that contain the highly addictive hydrocodone - more than a decade after the Drug Enforcement Administration first made the recommendation.

In about a month, patients will find it harder to acquire drugs like Vicodin and Lortab. They’ll be limited to a 90-day supply and will have to see a health care professional in person to get a refill.

The federal effort comes on the heels of new state guidelines, announced this summer, that urge Pennsylvania doctors to use restraint and caution in prescribing opioids to patients.

The recommendations are similar to those already in place at WellSpan Interventional Pain Management, according to Dr. To-Nhu Vu, medical director of the York Township practice.

“This is something that, within our system, we have been meeting and talking about for the past five years … Truly, we’re in the middle of an epidemic,” she said.

It’s time we all acknowledge that and join the effort to deal addiction - wherever it’s found.

- The York Dispatch.

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LIBRARIES STILL VALUABLE TO COMMUNITIES:

Columnist Tim Worstall, a British contributor to the Forbes website, made a controversial suggestion last month that provoked a good bit of tongue-wagging and online chatter in response.

Worstall proposed we not merely cut funding to our libraries, but do away with them entirely and issue Amazon Kindles to every citizen instead, each with an unlimited subscription.

“For it’s well known that only a small fraction of the population actually reads books at all,” Worstall blithely explained, adding libraries became state enterprises because of “the specific attributes of books as physical objects in limited supply in any one location” and that, hence, “perhaps the habit of having these physical libraries with physical books also no longer needs to exist?”

Let’s set aside for a minute the wide-eyed technological and free-market utopianism inherent in Worstall’s argument, along with the limitations on what you could read even with an “unlimited” Kindle subscription that brings you only 600,000 titles and the fact a large number of people still prefer to read things printed on good, old-fashioned paper (and research has shown readers absorb fewer details and retain less information when they read from a Kindle rather than paper).

Stories that appeared in the Observer-Reporter on Sunday and Monday outlined how libraries in our community, and elsewhere, still are valuable assets and are evolving into institutions that offer a great deal more than dusty volumes that are hastily thumbed at term-paper time.

In fact, one has to wonder if Worstall has even visited a library lately.

On Sunday, Staff writer Karen Mansfield detailed how, along with books, libraries are becoming all-purpose media centers where patrons can download an assortment of material, including books and magazines. For people still wedded to consuming their movies and music from artifacts, there are DVDs and compact discs. By teaming up with other libraries, patrons are no longer restricted to what the library down the block has on its shelves.

Libraries are also places where people and community organizations can meet and individuals can freely access computers and the Internet. As Mansfield’s story noted, in the overwhelming majority of the communities in which they are located, libraries are the only place where the public can use computers and get on the Internet at no cost.

According to Peggy Sang, the librarian at Canonsburg’s Frank Sarris Public Library, “People still check out a lot of books; our circulation is higher than ever, especially in the children’s department. But we are so much more than books.”

Following Mansfield’s story, on Monday, a front-page story by Joelle Smith explored how young people are discovering the basics of computer programming at the Peters Township Public Library through robots developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

It goes without saying the tremendous advances in our technology over the last couple of decades changed the way we work and the way we spend our off-hours.

Not many of us have pen pals anymore, few have record stores within an easy drive and no one has to go searching for change at a phone booth. But libraries shouldn’t join this list of things that are either extinct or teetering on the edge of being so. They’ve lately experienced funding difficulties, but libraries shouldn’t be allowed to vanish from the landscape.

Kristin Frazier, the librarian at Burgettstown’s library, eloquently summed it up: “We need libraries. Where else can you preserve a wealth of information in a location that’s accessible to everyone? I worry that people won’t realize how important we are until we’re not around.”

- The (Washington) Observer-Reporter.

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DUMPING DUTIES: A FISHY AND PYRRHIC VICTORY

We can expect U.S. Steel to announce any day now that it will reverse course and keep open steel tubing plants in McKeesport and Bellville, Texas, saving the jobs of 280 workers, right?

After all, the International Trade Commission has cleared the way for tariffs on pipe used in oil and natural gas extraction, manufactured by six foreign nations and, supposedly, dumped in the United States at below-market prices thanks to subsidies by their respective governments.

Don’t count on it. For in this particular case, “dumping” is a red herring.

As The Wall Street Journal dissected the matter in July, “the better explanation is that America’s energy revolution is raising demand for steel piping, casing and other oil-country tubular goods. Low prices aren’t a surprise given the worldwide glut caused by slowing growth in China and excess mill investment in China and the United States.”

And the tariffs could hurt more in the long run, The Journal reminds, because they raise “prices on the many to benefit the protected few. The injured in this case will include untold workers, shareholders and customers of U.S. companies that use steel - especially domestic manufacturers that everyone professes to love. U.S. firms will have greater incentive to expand overseas where the tariffs don’t apply, and household energy costs will be higher because of the added expense to drillers.”

As anti-dumping “victories” go, this one is as fishy as it is Pyrrhic.

- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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