FUND DRILLING HEALTH STUDY

State lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett have shaken the tree of the natural gas industry for several million dollars worth of campaign contributions (and in a few cases, Super Bowl trips), but they won't do the same thing to determine the industry's impact on public health.

A coalition of the Geisinger, Guthrie and Susquehanna health systems plans to conduct a comprehensive study of drilling's health impact throughout the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania, a project that would cost about $25 million. So far, the Dagenstein Foundation of Sunbury has contributed $1 million while the state government - which should have a profound interest in the industry's impact on public health - has contributed nothing.

Act 13, the law that regulates drilling and the "impact fee" paid by natural gas companies, does not include funding for a health registry.

This isn't a case of the state government claiming a lack of resources; it's either a lack of curiosity or a case of not wanting to know.

Lawmakers and the governor infamously have refused to establish the same sort of tax on the industry that is used in most other gas-producing states, thus shortchanging state residents. Even so, the impact fee has generated about $200 million in each of its first two years. If state officials really wanted to know whether drilling has affected public health, it would be a relatively easy legislative matter to dedicate a fraction of the tax to the study.


Advertisement

Pro-industry lawmakers state, as an article of faith, that gas extraction is safe. They just don't want to submit the claim to independent professional inquiry.

Many of those state lawmakers bristle at the Delaware River Basin Commission for its ongoing drilling moratorium, which is based partially on unknown health concerns. A Pennsylvania study validating the safety assertions would be compelling evidence to lift the moratorium.

— The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

PA. HOUSE, SENATE NEED TO RESOLVE DIFFERENCES ON LIQUOR PRIVATIZATION

We didn't think this was possible. The ineptness and procrastination of the liquor-system reformers in the state House and Senate is starting to make Pennsylvania's ancient, publicly run liquor cartel look good.

Well, relatively speaking. At least the old way of doing things is understandable in its inefficiency and Big Brother methodology.

This is not an endorsement of the status quo. It's a realization that Senate and House leaders have managed to squeeze the proposed privatization of a huge bureaucracy into a 10-day flurry to meet Gov. Tom Corbett's demand for action by the July 1 budget deadline. The Legislature will leave for summer recess after that. And considering that next year is an election year, the window of opportunity to get Pennsylvania out of the liquor-selling business is closing fast.

This week that process was complicated, rather than greased, by state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney's hybrid plan to open up the liquor market. The Bucks County Republican introduced a bill that would allow up to 14,000 establishments—bars, restaurants and hotels, mostly—to apply for licenses to sell beer, wine and spirits in package form. Yet McIlhenny's bill would keep the state in the wholesale and retail business, for a while at least, and allow the 620 state liquor stores to remain open as long as they are profitable.

Beer distributors could apply for wine-liquor licenses, and for the first time they'd be allowed to sell beer in six-packs. McIlhenny's bill would abolish the 18 percent alcohol sales tax (known as the Johnstown Flood tax) for new license-holders, to give them an 18 percent edge in prices over the state stores.

Unlike a House-passed bill, which would open sales to grocery stores, big-box outlets and convenience stores, McIlhenny's bill leaves them out. McIlhenny says his proposal would bring in the same amount of revenue, plus a surplus that could be funneled into property tax relief for seniors.

This isn't reform—it's a have-your-beer-and-drink-it-too approach, a dual public-private universe that will endow 14,000 or more new sellers. It looks like an expansion destined to collapse within a year it two.

There's no guarantee this idea will attract majority support in the Senate, and there's not much love in the Senate for the House bill, which proposes 1,800 new licenses for bars, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores.

Sure, this restructuring is complicated, in large part because the state has tried to "consumerize" a centralized distribution system that should have been assigned to private stores at the end of Prohibition. The result is a disjointed operation with too many competing interests.

McIlhenny's bill favors smaller, mom-and-pop establishments over big commercial sellers—a good instinct—while giving state liquor store clerks a reprieve. But privatization can't work with a public retail component. There have to be some winners and losers in this transformation. Corbett and Republican legislative leaders have had three years to agree on that basic premise and draw up the particulars. At the 11th hour, they seem more divided than ever.

The House bill seems like the more workable plan, but if lawmakers can't draw up a coherent bill in a short turnaround, they should leave bad enough alone.

— The (Easton) Express-Times

JOB ONE: TEACH THE TEACHERS

Teachers rightly complain they are too often blamed for every shortcoming in America's public schools today.

It certainly is not teachers' fault that too many schools, especially in big cities, are inadequately funded and staffed to produce the results expected of them.

It's also not teachers' fault when colleges gladly pocket education students' tuition and send them out with diplomas and certificates that perpetuate the lie that they are classroom ready.

That reality has been corroborated by a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality that gives high marks to only 9 percent of America's collegiate teacher training programs.

About 14 percent of the programs fell into a "consumer alert" category, including those at Holy Family University and Richard Stockton College. Forty-two percent were in the one-star or "very weak" category, including the University of Pennsylvania graduate programs in elementary and secondary education. Rutgers University-Camden, St. Joseph's University, Gwynedd-Mercy College, and Arcadia University each made the three-star "honor roll" for their secondary education programs.

Schools were rated on 18 standards, including selection criteria for admission, student teacher placement, reading and math instruction, lesson planning, and classroom management skills.

Some colleges that fared poorly in the study have rushed to condemn its methodology, but one thing is indisputable despite their gripes: Teacher quality makes a difference in the classroom. In recognition of that truth, beginning next school year, teachers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania will face more intense evaluations.

With students dropping out of school and flunking courses at alarming rates, it makes sense to thoroughly evaluate not only how well teachers teach but how well they were trained to do their jobs. Sadly, too many teachers, including some from elite universities, were shortchanged by their schools of education. Their alma maters should accept responsibility for that, said the report.

One problem is that with each state setting its own licensing requirements, programs and curricula for students can vary widely in the 1,100 college programs that educate nearly all of America's traditionally trained teachers.

Another problem is that it is far too easy to get into some teachers' colleges, with academic standards that accept almost anyone in the top half of his class. Countries with higher-performing students pick from the top third.

President Obama has called for higher teacher standards, and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union, may have the right idea to accomplish that. It's calling for a qualifying test, similar to a bar exam for lawyers, that prospective teachers would have to take before being allowed to teach. The idea has merit.

If this country hopes to improve public education, it must make sure that its schools are adequately funded and that its teachers are properly trained.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer

GE CONTRACT OUTCOME CRITICAL TO ERIE

The final hours of negotiations about the fate of 950 hourly jobs at GE Transportation involve a select group of management and union officials.

But make no mistake: The outcome of these talks will be felt far beyond the gates of the GE locomotive plant in Lawrence Park. If the jobs that are the subject of negotiations are moved to GE's new plant in Fort Worth, Texas, there will be many losers in addition to those who lose their jobs.

Local businesses will be hurt when former workers cut back spending. Manufacturers in the GE supply chain could also be hit. The market for housing and cars will be affected.

There are two distinct positions at the negotiating table, but in the Erie community, there are many people striving to see both sides of the critical issues being discussed: increasing productivity, beating the competition and confronting the loaded question about the difference in wages between GE Transportation in Erie and GE's assembly plant in Texas.

Since GE announced on April 9 that it intended to cut union jobs here and also lay off 100 salaried employees, our readers have weighed in with thoughtful commentary. They have urged GE's management and labor to work together. They have suggested their own ideas on how to increase productivity. They have acknowledged that some GE workers don't pull their weight, while also pointing out that most employees give their all to their jobs.

"The GE workers I know work very hard each and every day to make ends meet in order to provide for their families and to contribute to our local economy," the wife of one GE worker wrote. "I know any community would be lucky to have someone with (my husband's) work ethic, period. We really shouldn't be a community divided on this issue."

We agree. We can't be divided. We must stand together to urge cooperation and collaboration to reach an agreement that both sides can accept.

In that regard, we urge the leaders of Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America to take to heart the pleas of members who want to keep their jobs and continue to work hard to keep GE Transportation a thriving part of Erie's economy. The union is not required to take a proposal to its membership for approval, but in this case, it should.

— Erie Times-News

THE SUSQUEHANN RIVER—TOO BIG TO AIL?

At 12:01 Saturday morning (June 15), anglers on the Susquehanna were once again allowed to fish for the river's once-famous smallmouth bass. These days, the fishery is catch-and-release only, which is probably just as well, because the odds are good that the fish will be odd.

Since 2005, many smallmouth bass pulled from the river have carried ugly lesions and splotches that indicate something is seriously wrong (photo at left). The sex organs in many male fish show female characteristics, suggesting severe disruption in the reproductive process.

Altogether, the stress on the smallmouth has caused the once-prolific fish to become much more scarce. In spots where anglers once reported easily catching dozens of smallmouths, they now find few or none. Fish counts done by biologists confirm the sorry state of affairs.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the agency that oversees fishing in the commonwealth, states the obvious on its website: "The Susquehanna River is sick and needs help."

Biologists such as Vicki Blazer of the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded that the smallmouth is suffering so much because its immune system is being compromised.

And why might that be?

Blazer and others point out the fish live in a river that takes in a man-made stew of trouble-making ingredients. Fertilizers and manure run into the river and its tributaries from farms. Endocrine-disrupting weed killers and other chemicals are commonly used on farms and lawns, and the excess gets into the region's waterways. Urban runoff carries oil and heavy metals from traffic on roads. During storms, some of the region's sewer systems overflow, sending untreated sewage into the river.

Camp Hill, for example, recently got in trouble with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for almost one hundred incidents where it discharged untreated sewage. (Ironically enough, the legal problem was failing to report the pollution, rather than the act of pollution itself.)

Camp Hill will pay a fine of $140,000, improve its overflow monitoring system, and upgrade the capacity of its combined sewer/stormwater system to handle larger flows during downpours. The city will also send its sewage to Hampden Township's sewer system, instead of using LeMoyne's.

Those changes are helpful, but they're just one small step of many needed to help the river recover. Because the Susquehanna is being polluted from so many different and diffuse sources, it should have a comprehensive cleanup plan covering the entire watershed, much like the one for Chesapeake Bay.

The way to do that is to list the Susquehanna as "impaired" under the federal Clean Water Act.

However, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania's DEP have have declined to do so. They say more study is needed. The state's researchers agree the smallmouth bass are ailing, but they say they're not finding water quality trouble at their monitoring sites.

That may be because they are looking for the wrong things in wrong places.

The state only checks a limited list of water quality indicators, which so far are within state guidelines on the Susquehanna. Only this year have its researchers doing more detailed checks of water quality in the shallow areas where young smallmouth bass hang out. In those backwater sites, there is less dilution of the pollution that is flowing into the river.

In the meantime, the state DEP is sticking by its go-slow approach. Though its current way of measuring "pollution" on the Susquehanna is questionable, the agency says it has to stick with it, or face a certain lawsuit for listing the Susquehanna as impaired.

Though none of the river's advocates have run to court yet, the state and feds should start to worry about being sued for NOT listing the river.

As the Fish and Boat Commission's John Arway asks, "How many diseased smallmouth need to be found to list a river as an impaired water?"

Yes, we need "to study and discuss the things that we don't know," Arway said in remarks at a forum in Harrisburg last month, "but we also need to use the information that we do know to begin fixing a sick river."

— PennLive.com