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Monday, May 25, 2015

The Power of Trees to Unite a Community

This is a post about the power of trees. The power of trees to unite a community. The power of trees to provide hope for the future. The hope that trees will unite a community going forward into the future.

This post is actually coming a month late, but I thought it is still worth talking about. Most states celebrate Arbor Day on the last Friday in April every year. Arbor Day was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to encourage communities in the fledgling state to plant trees in the towns that had been treeless prairies only a few decades before. My own community, Lower Macungie Township, PA, was primarily rural through much of the 20th century and focused on agriculture. Since 1971, however, Lower Macungie has gone from 10,521 acres of farmland to less than 3,000 currently. And from 8,814 residents in 1970 to over 31,000 in 2010. That is a 250% increase in 40 years, compared to the U.S. population, which increased just 51% in that same 40-year period. In the first decade of the 21st century, we had the dubious designation of fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania.

One of the results of the rapid and poorly planned development of Lower Macungie over the past 30 years has been fragmentation. As large farms were gradually sold off to developers, we saw increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitat as well as fragmentation of human habitat. Nearly every large residential development built during the growth years was not connected to the rest of the community by any means other than automobile.  If a development was required to have sidewalks (which did not happen until the late 1990s), the sidewalks tended to dead-end at the limits of the project. No forethought was given to requiring connecting sidewalks to get to adjacent developments or even just to get outside of the development without having to walk the circuitous sidewalks though along the streets that were laid out in patterns reminiscent of a medieval labyrinths.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
This year the township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which I chair, initiated our first annual Arbor Day event. I felt that beginning an Arbor Day tradition in the township could be a way to address two concerns I have:  it would add back a small bit of the nature we’ve lost through the past decades of development, and it would be an opportunity for residents from different developments to join together to celebrate planting a new tree in a township-owned open space.

The EAC selected a location for our Arbor Day tree that is near the only elementary school in the township that has sidewalks leading to it and which is safely by foot from at least six different developments.  Had it not been for the school being built five years ago, this area would still not have any sidewalks connecting the surrounding developments.  The location we chose for our Arbor Day tree is an underutilized parcel that the builder of an adjacent development had to donate to the township as ”recreational open space,” primarily because a floodplain separates it from the rest of the development. The parcel is about 6.5 acres if you don’t count a stormwater channel bordering it on one side.  Because the parcel is categorized as recreational open space, the Public Works Department mows it regularly all summer long, whether it needs it or not. In the 10 years I’ve lived here, however, I’ve never seen anyone use the parcel for recreation.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
Our Arbor Day celebration on April 24 this year opened with a soloist from the local high school chorus (who happens to be my niece) singing the National Anthem, and with local Boy Scout Troop 131 presenting the American flag for the pledge of allegiance. The centerpiece of our celebration was our Arbor Day tree for 2015:  a northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was placed in a pre-dug hole.  Following a few words from local dignitaries, we asked all in attendance to take a turn with a shovel and toss in some dirt to help backfill the tree. By adding even a handful of soil to the tree’s root ball, everyone present had taken place in planting the tree. And by doing so, they are part of the legacy of hope for future generations of residents who will enjoy the tree’s beauty and shade.

Our plan is to select different locations in coming years to plant the township’s future Arbor Day trees – locations that can be accessed by at least two surrounding neighborhoods so that people from different developments can be drawn to the beauty the trees will offer and enjoy the birds that will also share the trees with the community. H   opefully, the 30 or so residents who attended our first annual celebration this year will seek out future celebrations and will bring their friends and neighbors.
Photo credit: Addison George, Morning Call (www.mcall.com) 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Grass Roots Science Denial Blocks Dam Removal

Science denial is not the exclusive realm of global climate change.  A recent proposal pitched to a neighboring township by a local conservation organization to remove a 111-year old concrete dam was met with a very vocal outcry from locals who want things to remain just as they are.

Here is the link to the newspaper story about the township's decision last month. And here is my perspective:
Wehr's dam and Wehr's Covered Bridge, South Whitehall Township, PA
(photo credit: mcall.com)

Last year, the Wildlands Conservancy, a local non-profit group proposed to South Whitehall Township’s Board of Commissioners conducting a feasibility study on removing Wehr’s dam on the Jordan Creek in South Whitehall.  Wehr’s dam was built at the beginning of the 20th century to power Wehr’s grist mill, which had stood nearby but was demolished decades ago.  A covered bridge, which also bears the Wehr name, is still in use 150 feet downstream from the dam. The township created a park centered on the aesthetics of the dam and covered bridge.  The Jordan Creek is a popular trout stream which is stocked by the state. But there is really no chance for a native population of trout to subsist in this spring-fed creek, because the dam causes the water in the Jordan to back up, stagnate, and warm up to summer water temperatures that trout cannot tolerate. The South Whitehall commissioners approved letting Wildlands carry out the feasibility study. But even at that preliminary step, a local blogger who thinks he has an axe to grind with Wildlands Conservancy began crying foul and riling up the opposition with accusations that Wildlands practices junk science. Interesting how people who cannot, or refuse to, understand science often resort to claims of junk science or academic dishonesty. In addition to the blogger, some descendants of the Mr .Wehr who built the dam began a petition drive seeking to prevent the dam’s removal.

I heard only one rational voice opposing the dam removal. My friend Mike Siegel questioned whether the Jordan Creek, in the absence of the dam, would carry enough water during summer low flows to sustain a population of fish. That’s because, depending on local groundwater conditions, it’s not unheard of for steams flowing over limestone bedrock to sometimes disappear into a sink hole and re-emerge further downstream out of another sinkhole.  When that happens to a steam, the fish usually just hunker down in deep pools in segments of the creek that have water in the summer months. I didn’t take the time to drive to the South Whitehall municipal building to read the feasibility report put together by Wildlands Conservancy and their engineering consultant. So I’m not sure whether the bedrock hydrology was even considered in the report.  But I don’t think trout would be likely to get stuck high & dry by a temporarily disappearing stream. That’s because trout will always seek out the coldest water, which, in an area underlain by limestone, would be wherever the nearest spring is feeding the creek. Based on the emotional outcry of people opposing the dam’s removal, it doesn’t sound like the stream’s hydrology even figured into the decision by the township Commissioners to turn down Wildlands’ offer to remove the dam at no cost to the township.

While it's refreshing to see commissioners consider residents' wishes in a decision, I think four of these five commissioners voted based on sentiment rather than facts. In this case, a non-profit organization with proven experience in removing low-head dams was offering to remove this mass of crumbling concrete at no cost to the township. Turning away "free" money to remove a financial liability like this deteriorating dam was an irresponsible vote that will cost the South Whitehall taxpayers plenty when they are facing with removing the failing structure in the future.  With this vote, the commissioners chose to blatantly disregard science in favor of a nostalgic alternative reality that the most outspoken people attending the meeting that night wanted to believe.  In doing so, they voted to commit their taxpayers to fight a losing battle against the natural deterioration of pile of rocks and concrete blocking a good trout stream that could be a better trout stream.

The Wildlands Conservancy's study included an underwater survey of the dam, which is not part of the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s routine dam inspection program. So with new data that proved their dam is in poor repair, particularly below the waterline where it is more difficult to monitor, it seems that the majority of residents who weighed in still sided with their emotions rather than science. It seems very much like the climate change stalemate in the U.S. If some people cannot see something, particularly something abstract, they won't believe it. Not even if scientists and engineers have verified the risks.  Here is my favorite line from the Morning Call story:

"The rest of the board sided with Commissioner Glenn Block, who said he wasn’t convinced by the findings that removing the dam wouldn’t increase flood risk."

Wehr's Dam, with sign warning, "Danger Dam - No Boating, No Swimming, No Wading." (photo credit: Wildlands Conservancy, as published on LehighValleyLive.com)
I don't know Mr. Block's professional background, but he appears to be neither a scientist nor an engineer. And he clearly doesn't want to allow science to interfere with his political popularity. So actually, South Whitehall's commissioners had the opportunity to do the right thing, although the right thing (IMO) in this case would have been unpopular with the standing room only crowd. So their commissioners voted 4-1 to keep their heads in the sand despite having been shown the risks and having been given an opportunity to avoid the financial burden of maintaining a deteriorating dam indefinitely into the future.  I live in neighboring Lower Macungie, so at least my tax dollars won't have to pay for the extensive maintenance. Or the potential law suit when someone is injured as a result of the dam. I wonder if the Wehr family would be so insistent about no removing the dam if they still owned it and were responsible for the dam’s maintenance costs and liability.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

PA's Marcellus Drillers Show Half-hearted Commitment to U.S. Piping Industry

I think the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does a good job of covering the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, and I often find articles on their website that catch my attention. A couple weeks ago I saw a story on their website about the source of the steel pipe (casing) that drillers use to construct both the vertical and horizontal portions of their hydraulic fracturing natural gas wells here in Pennsylvania.

Prior to being elected to the state senate in 2010, Jim Brewster was mayor of McKeesport, a struggling post-industrial borough on the Monongahela River less than 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Brewster learned last summer that the U.S. Steel plant in McKeesport, which produced pipe used in the natural gas industry, was about to shut down. U.S. Steel officials later told Brewster that a big part of their decision to close the plant, putting 175-200 workers in his district in the unemployment line, was that the oil & gas industry was buying a lot of foreign-produced pipe.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group representing the natural gas industry in PA, released a report last summer indicating that 90 percent of the casing used by their members was manufactured in North America. But they acknowledged that not all casing diameters are readily manufactured in the U.S. or even in North America (North America is doublespeak for Canada, and Russian interests own several piping mills in Canada). So Sen. Brewster had his staff do some further research.

The senator’s staff looked at well completion records on file with PADEP going back to 2012 when drillers were first required to identify the country of origin for the steel casing they used in their gas wells.  I know from my own experience with the crews who drill environmental test wells that drillers are not necessarily very detail oriented. Many of them would be quick to tell you that their job is to make a hole in the ground, not to document how they did it. So I was not surprised to read that Brewster’s staff found well records for only 1,196 of 4,473 gas wells (26.7%) drilled between October 2012 and October 2014. And in those well records, only 709 records (15.9% of the total wells) were complete with the country of origin for their casings. Prior to passage of Act 13 in 2012, the country of origin of the casing used to construct gas wells was considered a business secret.  From the 709 complete well records, Brewster’s staff found:
  • 348 wells used exclusively American-made steel (49.1%); 
  • 133 wells used foreign-made steel (18.8%); and 
  • 228 used a combination of U.S. and foreign-made steel (32.1%). 

Source:  MIT Research Study, Natural Gas, Chapter 2, cited on
In fairness, sourcing the steel casing for gas wells is not as simple as backing a truck up to the local Home Depot.  It takes hundreds to thousands of feet of several diameters of casing to build just one horizontal well.  And under the duress of demand, the limited supply of some diameters of steel casing could drive some drilling companies to seek out foreign supplies. These wells might typically begin with a 20-inch diameter casing cemented into the ground down to about 100 feet.  Then a nominal 16-inch borehole is drilled through the 20-inch casing to about 1,000 feet, and a 16-inch diameter steel casing is cemented into place to that depth. Then as the well is extended deeper, the borehole is telescoped progressively smaller such that casings of 10 3/4 inch and 7 5/8 inch diameters are used.  By the time the well nears the depth at which it will begin to deflect from vertical to horizontal, a 5 ½ inch casing is used.  The horizontal runs, of which there are typically two extending from one initial vertical well bore, can run out 5,000 to 6,000 feet laterally. In Pennsylvania, the horizontal well bores are usually at depths ranging from 6,000 to 9,000 feet below ground. So each well pad uses tens of thousands of feet of steel casing to construct the wells below them.

source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (www.eia.gov)
With the miles of steel casing needed for just one fracking well, a commitment from drilling companies to U.S. piping manufacturers can translate into hundreds of U.S. jobs saved. It seems like a commitment to the U.S. economy should be important to an industry that promised us that developing the Marcellus Shale gas play in Pennsylvania would be the state’s pathway to energy independence. But with pipelines being planned in PA to transport our Marcellus gas to export terminals for overseas markets, it seems like PA is missing out on some of the jobs and some of the long-term supply of gas we were promised when this drilling boom began in earnest seven years ago.