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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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Big Step Forward for Preserving Some of Lower Macungie's Open Space

I really wasn't expecting to update last night's blog so soon. But at tonight's Lower Macungie Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Jim Lancsek, who had previously spoken against efforts to preserve open space, presented a proposal to move open space preservation efforts forward.

Lancsek's proposal, which will have to go to the Board of Commissioners' Budget & Finance Committee for review and then a recommendation back to the board, suggested taking advantage of historically low interest rates for a bond issue or other financing options and possibly using surplus funds to preserve three key properties in the township. Lancsek said he doesn't support preserving open space without a functional purpose.  But he would support buying development rights for farms that, if fully developed with three or four single family homes per acre, would create excessive traffic problems for the township. He also said that he thinks it would be appropriate for the township to purchase in fee simple parcels adjacent to existing township parks so that those parks could be expanded.

The township's Environmental Advisory Council, which I chair, sent the commissioners a recommendation in spring of 2013 to allow a voter referendum to ask the residents whether they would support a fractional increase in our Earned Income Tax for a 5-year period to fund open space preservation. That recommendation was stuck in the Budget & Finance Committee until tonight when the Budget & Finance Committee recommended to the full board that no action be taken on the EAC's 2013 recommendation. Likewise, another potential open space funding recommendation that the EAC sent to the commissioners last year, which involved earmarking all real estate transfer taxes from a 700-acre commercial and residential subdivision that was previously zoned for Agricultural Preservation, was finally rejected by the commissioners. And I couldn't be happier.

I'm happy because the commissioners themselves looked for and found a viable means of funding preservation of some key properties in the township.  The EAC had discussed recommending a bond issue to get all of the needed funding up front to preserve several properties at once, but we thought that incurring debt would be frowned upon by more people than would take issue with a minor Earned Income Tax bump. And when I say minor, I'm talking about the price of one large two-topping pizza per month for someone earning the median income in our community. But that route would not have accumulated enough money to move forward with acquisitions for a few years. Mr. Lancsek's proposal could potentially get the money needed to preserve two properties borrowed and in the budget for next year.

This new proposal isn't a slam dunk by any means, but it is a very encouraging sign that one of our Board of Commissioners' biggest critics of open space preservation over the past three years has finally acknowledged the residents' wishes and stepped forward with an aggressive proposal that could make a real difference in what Lower Macungie will look like when we are fully built out in 20-30 years.  In three decades we might just have a few green patches remaining to separate the warehouses and cookie cutter houses from each other.